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P R A E S I D I U M
A Journal of Literate and Literary Analysis
7.1 (Winter 2007)
A quarterly publication of The Center for Literate Values
Board of Directors:
John R. Harris, Ph.D. (Executive Director)
Thomas F. Bertonneau, Ph.D. (Secretary)
Helen R. Andretta, Ph.D.; York College-CUNY
Ralph S. Carlson, Ph.D.; Azusa Pacific University
Kelly Ann Hampton
Michael H. Lythgoe, Lt. Col. USAF (Retd.)
The previous issue of Praesidium (Fall 2006) may be viewed by clicking here.
© All contents of this journal (including poems, articles, fictional works, and short pieces by staff) are copyrighted by The Center for Literate Values of Tyler, Texas (2007), and may not be cited at length or reproduced without The Center's express permission.
No particular theme emerges in this edition—but the vectors of “pop culture” and academic trend continue to point toward the danger zone.
Howard S. Schwartz
The scholar who literally wrote the book on the pathology of political correctness examines the curious revolt of the elites against elitism.
John R. Harris
This two-part series studies from the vantage of fictionalized adventures the complex socio-cultural malaise of alienated people putting all their trust in luck and love.
Two short essays, written in a condensed schematic which highlights major affinities and tensions, arrange our day’s prevailing assess-ments of where technology is taking us.
A young professor writes of his experiences teaching in lands about as remote from Western assumptions as one can find today.
In this short story, a graduate student far from sold on her major discovers a shocking new perspective lurking in the library’s most neglected section.
To make a donation, address your check or money order to The Center for Literate Values or to John Harris (NOT to Praesidium) and post to:
c/o John Harris, Editor
2707 Patriot Drive
Tyler TX, 75701
A Few Words from the Editor
Having obtained a favorable ruling in our application for 501(c)3 charitable status as of September 1, 2006 (the status is actually retroactive to The Center’s inception in 2000), we are now able to assure contributors that their donations are fully tax-deductible. I am still waiting for the generous deluge of funds which I expected this achievement to incite. Perhaps I am unreasonable. When I attempted to approach foundations for a small gift in past years, I was always lectured in gentle avuncular style that So-and-So Foundation’s charter forbids awards to any but 501(c)3’s. Now the uncle isn’t writing me letters: no one, so far, is writing me letters. This includes two people with whom I attended school from the tender age of nine—who did absolutely nothing to acquire their vast wealth, frankly, except be born with a certain name, and whose trust fund dispenses thousands to dozens of organizations every year as a tax dodge. Lest my application be lost in the crush or read by Heinrich Himmler reincarnated as an office flunkey, I directed my appeal directly to the homes of my “friends”. I even sent warm, chatty e-mails. Apparently, none of this was à propos. Not a word in acknowledgment—not even a return e-mail with something like “hi” in the subject box. Did I grovel too much, or not enough?
I am a pitiful fund-raiser (now considered one word by most, I fear) and a perfectly miserable self-promoter. I know that. I shouldn’t even be writing in this vein within this venue—not even with vague, anonymous references. But I’m getting old, and I continue to devote those years during which many others my age are piling up wealth to the thankless task of trying to save a few scraps of our culture for our children. No one—not I, nor any member of The Center’s board, nor any contributing author—receives a farthing in remuneration for all this work. I am rather irritated at this moment that people who command position, power, and resources in our declining society register no observable interest in preserving from oblivion a priceless tradition of thought wherein reason, conscience, creativity, and the search for transcending and humane purpose are valorized. This insouciance, of course, is visible at every level in our public life: I am no longer writing about a couple of quondam friends. If Eric Voegelin was right to style Marxism a “great swindle”, then our generation is witnessing The Great Betrayal among the Free World’s (as we once called it) victors: its politicians, legislators, educators, artists, corporate leaders, jurors, and sometimes even spiritual advisors.
On the other hand, if enthusiasm for the cause of responsible individualism were high, then we wouldn’t be in our present mess. The difficulty of securing support for ventures like The Center for Literate Values surely indicates that the crisis in response to which The Center was formed exists and poses a major threat. So we struggle onward. For those readers who may find my assertion needlessly theatrical, I can do no better than offer the contents of this issue. Professor Schwartz has given us the initial version of a paper for which he hopes to find broader exposure later. This is not to imply that his thesis is under-developed. On the contrary, he offers a detailed analysis of how our culture’s anointed (often self-anointed) elite superciliously sneers at our few remaining exponents of coherent values for being—of all things—elitist! My own piece on the evolution of literary romance as a social and psychological phenomenon would have echoed many of Dr. Schwartz’s suggestions if I had not been forced to halve my work. It grew and grew on me, and the half dealing with contemporary issues will appear in the next edition. At the very least, one may certainly say that overturning hierarchies in celebration of illogic is no less a sign of cultural collapse than embracing chaotic fantasies where only one or two characters prosper thanks to a lucky star. Mark Wegierski’s sketch-like commentary anatomizes our most common political and philosophical approaches to the current challenge; while Mark Notzon, now a veteran of teaching English all around the globe, entrusts us with the retrospective testimony of a young scholar somewhat adrift in our time’s turbulent seas. Ivor Davies’ exquisite short story traces the immensely more confused transit of a young grad-school student through the helter-skelter contemporary campus.A former student of my own—one of the most intelligent, beautiful, sensitive young people I have ever met—wrote me recently of her shock to read on our website that the literate life stood in some danger. Then she described the inner satisfaction she has found in radical vegetarianism (including abstinence from milk products, since cows may perhaps be pained by milking). Further exchanges convinced me that this young woman was disciplining her appetites for all the right reasons; but her case reminds me of many where the ascetics concerned carry their sacrifices to extravagant lengths. Such headlong lunges after spirituality are symptomatic, I think, of a culture in decline. Our scintillating but misguided children are usually like my friend in discerning no immediate connection between the guilt they feel on behalf of their wasteful, self-indulgent society and the collapse of that intense self-examination fostered by reading and writing. We must redirect such promising energy along avenues which make full use of its benevolent impulse; for ill-directed energy—passion, as the current parlance has it—can all too readily transfer its attention from the human soul to a symbolic blade of grass, or even (as Dr. Schwartz shows us) from love to narcissism.
Religion Against Itself: The Revolt of the Elite of the United Church of Christ
Howard S. Schwartz
Howard S. Schwartz is the author of The Revolt of the Primitive. He welcomes responses to this essay and may be reached at Oakland University (e-mail ), where he is Professor of Organizational Behavior.
Revolt of the Elites
Appropriating the term revolt of the masses from José Ortega y Gasset, and then reversing its referent, the late Christopher Lasch introduced the concept of the revolt of the elites.
Gassett’s subject was the man of the masses at the time of the Russian Revolution and the rise of fascism:
The mass man... had no use for obligations and no understanding of what they implied, “no feeling for [the] great historical duties.” Instead he asserted the “rights of the commonplace.” At once resentful and self-satisfied, he rejected “everything that is excellent, individual, qualified, and select.” He was “incapable of submitting to direction of any kind.” Lacking any comprehension of the fragility of civilization or the tragic character of history, he lived unthinkingly in the “assurance that tomorrow [the world] will be still richer, ampler, more perfect, as if it enjoyed a spontaneous, inexhaustible power of increase.” He was concerned only with his own well-being and looked forward to a future of “limitless possibilities” and “complete freedom.” (Lasch, 1995)
The revolt of the masses, then, was a revolt against the idea of constraint, a revolt against obligation, and a revolt against the civilization within which these constraints and obligations were embedded and which they made possible. Marxism and fascism, the ideologies of the time, were utopian ideologies. They promised the ego ideal, “limitless possibilities” for the common people. Under the circumstances, a revolt against constraint was not beyond comprehension. Constraint and obligation, one could imagine, were only characteristics of the historical period, which would soon give way to something much more appealing.
It was left to the elites of the time to uphold the values of civilization and the obligations that it imposed:
From Ortega’s point of view, one that was widely shared at the time, the value of cultural elites lay in their willingness to assume responsibility for the exacting standards without which civilization is impossible. They lived in the service of demanding ideals. “Nobility is defined by the demands it makes on us—by obligations, not by rights.
But for Lasch, the relationship of the classes to the traditions of morality has been reversed.
Once it was the “revolt of the masses” that was held to threaten social order and the civilizing traditions of Western culture. In our time, however, the chief threat seems to come from those at the top of the social hierarchy, not the masses….
[T]he masses have lost interest in revolution; their political instincts are demonstrably more conservative than those of their self-appointed spokesmen and would-be liberators. It is the working and lower middle classes, after all, that favor limits on abortion, cling to the two-parent family as a source of stability in a turbulent world, resist experiments with “alternative lifestyles,” and harbor deep reservations about affirmative action and other ventures in large-scale social engineering… They have a more highly developed sense of limits than their betters. They understand, as their betters do not, that there are inherent limits on human control over the course of social development, over nature and the body, over the tragic elements in human life and history.
And, by contrast:
Today it is the elites, however—those who control the international flow of money and information, preside over philanthropic foundations and institutions of higher learning, manage the instruments of cultural production and thus set the terms of public debate—that have lost faith in the values, or what remains of them, of the West. For many people the very term “Western civilization” now calls to mind an organized system of domination designed to enforce conformity to bourgeois values and to keep the victims of patriarchal oppression—women, children, homosexuals, people of color—in a permanent state of subjection.
These elites, whom Lasch identifies with what Reich (following Daniel Bell) calls “symbolic analysts,”
are in revolt against “ Middle America ,” as they imagine it: a nation technologically backward, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy. (p.6)
This revolt had a characteristic affect:
It was, above all, however, the “deadly hatred of all that is not itself' that characterized the mass mind, as Ortega described it. Incapable of wonder or respect, the mass man was the “spoiled child of human history.”
And here again the place of the classes has been reversed:
Upper-middle-class liberals… have mounted a crusade to sanitize American society: to create a “smoke-free environment,” to censor everything from pornography to “hate speech,” and at the same time, incongruously, to extend the range of personal choice in matters where most people feel the need of solid moral guidelines. When confronted with resistance to these initiatives, they betray the venomous hatred that lies not far beneath the smiling face of upper-middle-class benevolence. Opposition makes humanitarians forget the liberal virtues they claim to uphold. They become petulant, self-righteous, intolerant.
In the heat of political controversy, they find it impossible to conceal their contempt for those who stubbornly refuse to see the light—those who “just don’t get it,” in the self-satisfied jargon of political rectitude. Simultaneously arrogant and insecure, the new elites, the professional classes in particular, regard the masses with mingled scorn and apprehension.
In the United States , “ Middle America ”—a term that has both geographical and social implications—has come to symbolize everything that stands in the way of progress: “family values,” mindless patriotism, religious fundamentalism, racism, homophobia, retrograde views of women. Middle Americans, as they appear to the makers of educated opinion, are hopelessly shabby, unfashionable, and provincial, ill informed about changes in taste or intellectual trends, addicted to trashy novels of romance and adventure, and stupefied by prolonged exposure to television. They are at once absurd and vaguely menacing—not because they wish to overthrow the old order but precisely because their defense of it appears so deeply irrational that it expresses itself, at the higher reaches of its intensity, in fanatical religiosity, in a repressive sexuality that occasionally erupts into violence against women and gays, and in a patriotism that supports imperialist wars and a national ethic of aggressive masculinity.
About the causes of this transformation, Lasch does not offer much. He cites the decline of old money, with its roots in the community, and the rise in importance of success, which calls for the acceptance of a migratory way of life and an embrace of mobility. The elite travel in their own circles these days; they are international, not national, and therefore their sense of being obligated to their countrymen is attenuated. There is also the rise of meritocracy, which has provided this class with the illusion that it has earned its status on its own, and therefore owes nothing to those who have gone before. Nor does it owe anything to those that will come, who will have to make it in their own time.
The Function of Ideology
Since Marx, it has become familiar to say that a ruling class creates an ideological superstructure that legitimates its dominant position in the economic base. Within this ideology, the elite are worthy of their possession of the good; while those who have less, have less because they are less worthy. From this standpoint, the characteristic beliefs of the current elite present a paradox.
The problem is that, while the Marxist explanation may help us understand the elite’s detachment from, and even their contempt for, lesser mortals, it runs aground on the specifics of their beliefs. The ideological items here are the familiar tropes of political correctness, which by all accounts is a product of the leftist politics of the sixties. They do not proceed from an ideology that justifies privilege, but from one that excoriates privilege. They take the side, not of those who have power and standing, but of those who, according to the ideology, have been deprived of them, and who have been deprived of them precisely by those who have the power and standing.
Through their ideology, the elites as Marx recognized them were for themselves; their ideology buttressed their position. By contrast, the elites that Lasch discusses are against themselves; their ideology undermines their position. The revolt of the elites, in other words, appears to be a revolt against elites.
This is so with regard to the economic position that Lasch sees as the prime mover here, but also regarding the racial, sexual, and sexual preference dimensions that are the overt content of the ideology; or at least that will be so if we assume that the elites in question are largely white, heterosexual, and male. The ideology of elites would, one would think, celebrate their characteristics, not indict those who have these characteristics as oppressors.
Another peculiarity here is that the elite ideology has an antagonistic dimension to it that is not generally present in class ideology. In the Marxist analysis, the ruling class justifies its position, and maintains that it has a greater entitlement to the privileges of its position; but by the same token, it affirms the value of the lower classes within their diminished positions. Indeed, the lower class acceptance of their position, which Marx calls “false consciousness,” buttresses the higher classes’ claims to theirs: this convenient concordance is easily parlayed into an affirmation of their goodness. To be sure, with its sense of entitlement, an elite can become defensive and antagonistic toward what it considers to be threats to its standing. Politically correct ideology, though, involves aspersions of moral badness from the outset, in the forms of racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on, without regard to any threats to its standing. It is made out of antagonism. We do not see here, in other words, a claim of entitlement for oneself with situational defensive antagonism when threatened. A claim of entitlement is not put forth. Rather, there is simply a moral program against others, which stands by itself.
And who are these others? Lasch says that they are “Middle Americans,” a term referring to their geographical location and class. He also calls them “the masses,” and, more informatively, the working and lower-middle classes. But this raises again a paradox, for if one assumes that the elite class sees itself as leading a group, the working and lower-middle classes are the group they are leading. The elite’s status refers to that group; without it their elite status disappears. Here again, the revolt of the elites appears to be a revolt against themselves.
Altogether, then, Lasch leaves us with a problem, which is how to understand the relationship of this elite to its PC ideology. It is an ideology of elite against elites; an ideology which stands by itself and does not relate to anything; an ideology against a group, but this is the group of which the elite are the leaders.
What does this ideology mean, and why has this elite adopted it?
The answer I will propose is that the PC ideology functions differently than does the classic ideology of an elite. It does not justify the elite, but rather expresses its psychodynamic. The task, then, is to understand the psychodynamics of this elite. Lasch has identified it as the symbolic analysts, which he has also identified as the new ruling class of capitalism. I agree with the first designation, but I believe the second needs some refinement. The symbolic analysts have arisen not so much to dominate capitalism as to redefine it. The ownership of capital, that is to say, no longer counts for very much. What counts is the creation of meaning. This suggests that the term “symbolic analysts” is a misnomer. The new class does not so much analyze symbols as create them.
The creation of symbols takes place across the full range of our economic activity. One can see it easily in the “cultural production” that Lasch associates with the elites. However, equal levels of creativity have transformed practices in areas one might think of as being constituent parts of the economic base, such as the “control of the international flow of money,” with which he also associates them. For example, when Michael Milken reconceived the way financial markets function (Lewis, 1990) he was being as creative as any artist. Or one can find creativity in a new idea of the way a computer’s motherboard relates to its processor, a reconsideration that can render the old way of thinking thoroughly obsolete almost overnight, and can turn the products of the old way into valueless junk.
Creativity is the defining activity of the new economic order in much the same way that rationality is the defining activity of the old one. To be sure, no economic activity in our time can exist without a degree of both of them, but their relative importance has shifted dramatically.
What is important for our purpose is that creativity and rationality exist in a kind of tension. Rationality works through established forms, but creativity creates new forms, which must destroy the old. This tension is our issue. If we want to look for the meaning of PC ideology, we must look at the psychodynamics of the tension between creativity and rationality.
Psychoanalytically, it is the tension between the sphere of the mother, which Lacan calls the imaginary, and the sphere of the father, which he calls the symbolic. The father brings understanding of the world as it has been wrought. The mother is the muse. She is the ear to whom the creative person speaks.
Our developmental task with regard to the father is twofold. First, we must subordinate ourselves to him, so that we may learn what he has to teach. Then, having internalized what he has taught, we must separate from him as an individual and make our own way. Our developmental task with regard to the mother is only to separate from her. Subordinating ourselves to her is not a task at all. Fusion with her is the baseline from which we start; it is the matrix out of which our individual identity comes into being.
These developmental tasks are difficult, but each is difficult in its own way. Subordination to the father is difficult because it feels like death—the sacrifice of our pristine individuality, which is experienced, to begin with, as exactly and entirely who we are. Separation from the mother is simpler, though it is much more difficult because life seems perfect in her embrace. Yet without that separation from mother, subordination to the father seems senseless, abusive, and intolerable; his very presence feels like an assault. In this regard, development does not feel like a positive project but like a losing proposition, from which arises a tendency to reject it. This rejection is what we call regression.
There is another way of looking at this. The father’s function is to make us independent of the father. He teaches us what he knows, and when we have learned it, we do not need him any more. We can rely on what we have learned and act independently based upon that knowledge, which is now a part of us. The mother does not function to teach us independence. Our relationship with her does not leave a precipitate of objective knowledge. It is purely subjective. Therefore, it cannot be relied upon in the same way. James Baldwin speaks of the suicidal panic that a writer goes through after he has finished one book but has not gotten going on another. He does not know whether there is another book in him, and he cannot know until he has written it. The creative person is always dependent on the muse; and she may be there or she may not.
This leads to a kind of primitive worship of the mother, which is the psychological substrate for the power of feminism and hence of the political correctness which represents its social program.
Because of its dependence on the mother, and because of the felt necessity to reject the forms that the father has wrought, creativity has what we may call a regressive pull; regression is a felt and powerful temptation. The rise of the symbolic analysts has, as a concomitant, a rise in the power of this regressive pull. If we want to understand the ideology of the new elite, we must look at the dynamics of this temptation.
I will explore these dynamics by looking at how they play out in the ideological expression of a specific elite. The elite is the national governing structure of the United Church of Christ. To explore the expression, we will consider a series of television commercials produced by the UCC and aired during 2004 and 2005.
Religion Against Itself
On March 28, 2006 , the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the major TV networks had rejected an ad by the United Church of Christ, saying it violated their rules against controversial or religious advertising. The article by Wyatt Buchanan, a Chronicle staff writer, says:
The 30-second commercial for the United Church of Christ will begin airing on cable networks and Spanish-language stations next week. The ad, called “Ejector,” shows a gay couple, a single mother, a disabled man and others flying out of their pews as a wrinkled hand pushes a red button. Text on the screen reads, “God doesn’t reject people. Neither do we,” and a voiceover says, “The United Church of Christ. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.” The church tried to run a similar ad in December 2004 in which bouncers outside a church stopped gay couples, racial minorities and others from entering. The networks also rejected that ad. (p. D12)
Both of the ads, which are available on the UCC website at http://www.stillspeaking.com/resources/indexvis.html, are well produced and slick, and end with images of happy and diverse groups of people, evidently representing what the UCC has to offer.
Blogger and political psychologist John Ray, commenting on the article, has written:
A Leftist church (probably with a minute membership) was ostensibly trying to advertise itself but did so only by misrepresenting the great majority of Christian churches. No follower of Christ rejects anyone from Christian services—any more than Christ rejected lost sheep—but some churches will endeavour to point the way to more biblical standards of behaviour. Deceptive advertising is rightly banned and this ad was grossly deceptive and defamatory
About one thing, Ray appears to be wrong. The United Church of Christ cannot be said to have a minute membership. Wikipedia says this about it:
The United Church of Christ (UCC) is a mainline Protestant Christian denomination in the United States , generally considered within the Reformed tradition, and formed in 1957 by the merger of two denominations, the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches. Currently, the United Church of Christ has approximately 1.3 million members and is composed of approximately 5,750 local congregations.
On another matter, Ray is certainly correct. The ads are defining the UCC as a church that differs from the others in that it does not reject people like gays. This definition only makes sense if one believes that such rejection is the norm among Christian churches. And in fact, on its website at http://www.ucc.org/index.php, the UCC declares, “… the ad acknowledges the rejection that many have experienced from organized religion.”
But as Ray observes, Christian churches, followers of one who famously gathered social rejects around him, do not, as a general rule, reject people from services. On the contrary, in a manner that almost anyone would regard as definitional, Christians believe that Christ, through his sacrifice, offers us redemption from sin, and that it is one of the main functions of the Christian church to extend that offer of redemption. The result is that Christians characteristically deal with those they regard as sinners by offering salvation; attempting to bring the individual into the fold, not by expelling him.
To be sure, there are matters which some would not consider sinful and others would. Certain persons might well feel themselves rejected. That will always be so, as long as one holds that anything is sinful. But that there is sin is the very premise of Christianity. Jesus did not die on the cross to abolish the category of sin; he died to redeem us from it. And if Christians do not reject sin, even though they welcome the sinner as a person with a redeemable soul, it is hard to say how they can possibly be Christians.
Yet the idea of Christians turning sinners away from services, absurd as it is, stands as nothing against the idea of Christians rejecting the disabled from services. The idea that followers of Christ, who largely ground their faith in the belief that Jesus worked miracles in healing the sick, would reject disabled people from services because they are disabled is more than absurd; it is bizarre.
But we must assume that the people who are behind the ads mean what they say. After all, they define themselves through this idea. It constitutes, by negation, who they are in their own minds. They define their church as a refuge for people who have been rejected by “The Ejector,” and “The Bouncers.” What is more, they believe that this sort of rejection is so common that they can build up their brand, so to speak, by appealing to its victims.
Moreover, the concatenation of homosexuals, single mothers, racial minorities, and disabled people in the ads suggests that, in the mind of the UCC, the rejecting response of other Christians toward these groups grows out of the same impulse. The attitude that other Christians are believed to hold toward disabled people, that is to say, is the same, though it may have a different object, as the attitude they hold toward single mothers, racial minorities, and homosexuals.
The ads, in short, do not make a great deal of sense in their own right. That suggests that the way to understand them is not in their own right, but as the expression of unconscious emotional forces. Returning to our earlier considerations, we can see in these ads a clear expression of Lasch’s “revolt of the elites.” Viewed as expressions of emotion, the ads clearly illustrate the kind of contempt for the masses that Lasch held the elites to have. The charges of political incorrectness, in the form of the excoriation of “organized religion” for its racism, homophobia, etc., are manifest. In effect, the ads, which overtly accuse organized religion of rejecting others, are themselves rejections, and what they reject is Christianity as it has been practiced in the United States and those who follow it—those, in other words, who represent “‘family values,’ mindless patriotism, religious fundamentalism, racism, homophobia, retrograde views of women,” and other postures of which Lasch has spoken.
But in addition to that, the paradoxes that we saw in Lasch’s treatment are fully present. The focus of criticism in the ads is the elite of the church. The “wrinkled hand” which pushes the ejector button must surely be a church official, and the bouncers are clearly not acting autonomously. They are wearing earphones and microphones. Clearly they are in touch with someone who is giving them orders and clarifying what they are supposed to do. But if it is the elite of “organized religion” that is being attacked, who is doing the attacking? The United Church of Christ is, after all, part of organized religion and, at least as far as its public positions are concerned, entirely representative of the mainline Protestant denominations. It therefore appears that these elites are attacking themselves.
The Purpose of the Analysis
If this is so, it suggests that it is possible to explore the dynamics of the revolt of the elites through a study of the dynamics in the UCC that led to this ad campaign.
We can do this by focusing on a set of questions raised by the irrationality of the ads. For example, what kind of attitude can it be that UCC believes other Christians have? Second, what is going in the mind of the UCC, or rather of the UCC elite, that leads them to have the notion they have about other Christians? They certainly didn’t get that notion from reality, since in reality other Christians do not have it. So where did they get it? And finally, how can it be that, quite contrary to fact, they believe the notion’s reality to be ubiquitous?
The answer I will propose provides a key to all of these questions. It is that the attitudes that the UCC attributes to the minds of other Christians are not in other Christians, at least no more than they are in the mind of the UCC. In truth, with regard to the orientation that I will describe, the UCC is simply part of mainline Christianity. In fact, what I am saying is equally true of the other mainline denominations, including the Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches.
The UCC believes these attitudes are in the minds of other Christians because it has projected them there. This is what psychoanalysis calls “projective identification,” and I have elsewhere described its role in political correctness (Schwartz, 2003). Briefly put, it projected them there because it couldn’t stand these attitudes being in themselves. By projecting them outside, the UCC seemed to solve two problems. It could get rid of the unacceptable ideas and it could give them a focus outside itself which it could find unacceptable, and in that way maintain its hatred of the ideas. And the reason it finds these ideas ubiquitous is that the UCC brings them along wherever it collectively turns. What we are seeing here is the externalization of an internal conflict. It is not a conflict between the UCC and other Christians, but within the mind of UCC itself.
But what are these ideas, and why are they so unacceptable? For an answer to that, we need to turn to the psychology of political correctness.
In my view (Schwartz, 2003), political correctness is based upon identification with what psychoanalysis calls the maternal imago—the primitive image of an omnipotent, perfectly loving mother that we all carry with us in the deepest layers of our psyche. At that stage, the infant is narcissistic; it experiences itself as being the center of a loving world. The primitive mother is the fantasy that personifies that loving world: she is part of the narcissism of the child.
The problem is, what to do about our experience with aspects of the world that are not loving. This is the question Freud addresses with his theory of the Oedipus complex. The objective reality of the world is not built around us and does not care about us. In psychoanalytic theory, this objective, indifferent reality is personified in the father. We first encounter it in the form of the relationship that the father has with the mother, which does not revolve around us. He has taken mother’s love away from us, we feel, and we respond to him with rage. But remember that the father here is only representing the indifference of reality. Rage against reality is obviously an unproductive strategy for living in the objective world. Ordinarily this rage is overcome by an internalization of the father, and the reality he represents, to form the superego.
The solution that underlies political correctness, however, is quite a different one. In this psychology, we deny the objective character of reality, and hence the meaning of the father. Mother’s omnipotence, her capacity to make our lives perfect just by her presence, would take care of us entirely, if her love had not been stolen by the father, who is seen here as an imposter. He has taken mother by force and subterfuge and stolen her love and beneficence from us. Oh, he tells stories about how he achieved something in the world to earn a place with her, but they are lies, built around the central lie that the external world is indifferent to us. The world is not indifferent to us. If it were not for him, the fantasy continues, the world would be a loving place, as it was when we were infants in our mother’s arms. Get rid of him and we will again be in the state of perfect bliss of union with mother. In the meantime, he is to be hated for his theft of love and deprived of it in the future. Those from whom he has stolen it, who are in PC terms the members of oppressed groups, are to be loved in compensation.
It is clear from its website that the PC orientation in the UCC is palpable and powerful. Throughout the twentieth century, the UCC, through its elite, redefined itself as a leftist social action organization. With the eclipse of Marxism, this agenda metamorphosed into the identity politics that provides the content of political correctness. This political correctness placed impossible demands on the UCC elite, which it could only resolve with the kind of projection we see in the commercials.
To put the matter briefly, the UCC identification with the mother redefined its function in terms of maternal love. It would love each of us exactly as we are, and would make us feel perfectly loved in that way. The problem is that this meant that it had to make demands upon itself that it could not fulfill, because of human limitations on the capacity to love and especially on the limitations reality imposes on the efficacy of love. But these limitations were not acceptable and hence had to be projected outward. “Organized religion,” insofar as it is imagined as the rejecting church, may be seen as a repository created for the purpose of receiving those projections. But these limitations represent the objective indifference of reality. The rejecting church, therefore, is reality, which is represented by the father. Thus, by adopting this maternal identification, the UCC was not only setting itself up as being different from the father, but as his antagonist. The point is that offering love, by itself, could not constitute a sufficient way of being. The offering of love had to be accompanied by a rejection of the father. These are two sides of the same coin. That is the complex dynamic that led to the creation of those peculiar commercials.
In a broader sense, however, what is involved here is a massive redefinition of the nature of the church, and indeed of religion. We may think of it in terms of a movement between two ideas of the church, which we shall call the father church and the mother church.
For psychoanalytic purposes, we may think of the ultimate object of religion as being the ego ideal: fusion with the primordial mother. This immediately suggests that a church that takes a maternal orientation will be fundamentally different than a church that takes a paternal orientation. The difference is that the father stands between us and the mother and makes demands upon us. The promise is that if we become like the father, we can have the mother. So it is with the father church: it makes demands on us that we must fulfill if we are to attain salvation. The mother church does not. It offers us salvation in the form of membership alone. It does not go too far to say that the mother church sets itself up as God; it puts itself in the business of worshipping itself. This is obviously quite a significant redefinition of the nature of the church and religion, and we can see it taking place all through mainline American Protestantism
The Father Church and the Mother Church
For example, consider an article in First Things magazine (2005) by Philip Turner, the former Dean of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, and currently Vice President of the Anglican Communion Institute. His thought here is directed specifically at his own church, the Episcopal, but he means it to apply to all of mainline Protestantism within the United States , which would include the UCC.
Johnson begins by reporting that after serving ten years as a missionary in Uganda , he returned to the US to attend graduate school in Christian Ethics at Princeton . Subsequent to that, he took a job at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest. This is what he reports:
Full of excitement, I listened to my first student sermon—only to be taken aback by its vacuity. The student began with the wonderful question, “What is the Christian Gospel?” But his answer, through the course of an entire sermon, was merely: “God is love. God loves us. We, therefore, ought to love one another.” I waited in vain for some word about the saving power of Christ’s cross or the declaration of God’s victory in Christ’s resurrection. I waited in vain for a promise of the Holy Spirit. I waited in vain also for an admonition to wait patiently and faithfully for the Lord’s return. I waited in vain for a call to repentance and amendment of life in accord with the pattern of Christ’s life.
This was quite different from what his ten years in Uganda would have led him to expect, and it was no aberration:
I have heard the same sermon preached from pulpit after pulpit by experienced priests. The Episcopal sermon, at its most fulsome, begins with a statement to the effect that the incarnation is to be understood as merely a manifestation of divine love. From this starting point, several conclusions are drawn. The first is that God is love pure and simple. Thus, one is to see in Christ’s death no judgment upon the human condition. Rather, one is to see an affirmation of creation and the persons we are. The life and death of Jesus reveal the fact that God accepts and affirms us.
From this revelation, we can draw a further conclusion: God wants us to love one another, and such love requires of us both acceptance and affirmation of the other.
In other words, God is love and makes no demands on us. The church simply follows this model. This is what I am calling the mother church. The attack upon the father, defined here as social practices that have resulted in some being marginalized, follows from this.
From this point we can derive yet another: accepting love requires a form of justice that is inclusive of all people, particularly those who in some way have been marginalized by oppressive social practice. The mission of the Church is, therefore, to see that those who have been rejected are included—for justice as inclusion defines public policy. The result is a practical equivalence between the Gospel of the Kingdom of God and a particular form of social justice.
The church abandons its connection to its own doctrine, as it has come from the past and as it is reinterpreted through learned and authoritative theological discussion. The word of God comes to be brought forward though spontaneity, within the overall frame of God’s inclusiveness, and unconstrained by the necessity of linkage to tradition. In other words, the church speaks with the voice of God and what it does is an expression of divinity:
… changes in belief and practice within the church are not made after prolonged investigation and theological debate. Rather, they are made by “prophetic actions” that give expression to the doctrine of radical inclusion.
Such actions have become common partly because they carry no cost. Since the struggle over the ordination of women, the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops has given up any attempt to act as a unified body or to discipline its membership.
Certain justifications are commonly cited for such failure of discipline. The first is the claim of the prophet’s mantle by the innovators—often quickly followed by an assertion that the Holy Spirit Itself is doing this new thing, which need have no perceivable link to the past practice of the church.
The church as mother, who accepts us exactly as we are, believing what we want to believe, poses no demands. It also imposes no ethical standard, apart from the embrace of inclusiveness itself.
But the deep roots of the idea are in the doctrine of radical inclusion. Once we have reduced the significance of Christ’s resurrection and downplayed holiness of life as a fundamental marker of Christian identity, the notion of radical inclusion produces the view that one need not come to the Father through the Son. Christ is a way, but not the way…
This unofficial doctrine of radical inclusion, which is now the working theology of the Episcopal Church, plays out in two directions. In respect to God, it produces a quasi-deist theology that posits a benevolent God who favors love and justice as inclusion but acts neither to save us from our sins nor to raise us to new life after the pattern of Christ. In respect to human beings, it produces an ethic of tolerant affirmation that carries with it no call to conversion and radical holiness.
For Johnson, this represents the loss of what makes Christianity Christianity. But we should also see within it the rejection of the Church as father, in the form of the demands made by the Church:
In a theology dominated by radical inclusion, terms such as “faith,” “justification,” “repentance,” and “holiness of life” seem to belong to an antique vocabulary that must be outgrown or reinterpreted. So also does the notion that the Church is a community elected by God for the particular purpose of bearing witness to the saving event of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
It is this witness that defines the great tradition of the Church, but a theology of radical inclusion must trim such robust belief. To be true to itself, it can find room for only one sort of witness: inclusion of the previously excluded. God has already included everybody, and now we ought to do the same. Salvation cannot be the issue. The theology of radical inclusion, as preached and practiced within the Episcopal Church, must define the central issue as moral rather than religious, since exclusion is in the end a moral issue even for God.
We must say this clearly: the Episcopal Church’s current working theology depends upon the obliteration of God’s difficult, redemptive love in the name of a new revelation. The message, even when it comes from the mouths of its more sophisticated exponents, amounts to inclusion without qualification.
Johnson’s word “obliteration” should not be taken lightly. The mother church is, indeed, engaged in a project of obliteration. This project of obliteration is what we see in the commercials of the UCC. In order to see this clearly, we need to get a sense of the environment in which the church found itself, since the church conceived of the commercials as a marketing strategy for dealing with its environment.
The Marketing Strategy
The ads were part of a program called The Stillspeaking Initiative (TSI). Its meaning is that God is still speaking, so we should pay attention to what He is saying now, rather than take restrict ourselves to what He said in the past. The brainchild of a former marketing executive named Ron Buford, the project’s conscious purpose was laid out in a series of annual reports put out by the UCC and available on their website.
We will turn to the specific rationale for the ads in a moment, but first of all we must give the matter a bit of context.
As I said above, UCC membership is by no means minute; however, it is shrinking. Having begun with 2.4 million members, it lost over 40 percent over the following 50 years. This was in keeping with the other mainline Protestant churches of the United States . In 1960, mainline church membership stood at over 29 million. By 2000 this number had fallen to 22 million—a 21 percent drop. Some mainline denominations have suffered even greater membership losses. The Disciples of Christ suffered a 55 percent membership loss. The Episcopal Church, at a 33 percent rate of attrition, shrank almost proportionately to the UCC (39 percent) during this period.
This drop in membership needs to be contrasted with an overall increase in church membership within the US during the same period. We will discuss the causes of this later on. For the present, note that during the same 1960 to 2000 period, the following changes took place in other, non-mainline Protestant denominations:
Assemblies of God: 508,602 2,577.560
Southern Baptist Convention 8,731,591 15,960,308
Roman Catholic Church: 42,104,900 63,383,030
Perhaps even worse from the UCC point of view was that donations from member congregations to the national church had declined even more substantially. The reasons for these declines are complex and we shall return to them shortly. For the present, our interest is not in the real reasons, but in the UCC perception of the reasons. Insofar as that perception has been conscious and publicly avowed, it provides the conscious rationale for the program as a marketing innovation. To get a handle on it, we turn to the UCC annual reports, which are available on the UCC website at http://www.ucc.org/ocwm/.
The line of thought and action that culminates in the ads begins in the annual report for 2003. They lay out the problem this way:
Current church growth statistics give us pause as we ponder what lies before us: while almost 1,000 UCC congregations (16 percent) are growing numerically, 52 percent of our churches show no membership change and 32 percent are losing members. Local church giving increases at an average yearly rate of 2 percent; however, it is not enough to offset the harsh economic realities forcing congregations to make painful choices between staff, building maintenance, outreach, and giving to Our Church’s Wider Mission (OCWM).
Declining OCWM income has had a debilitating effect on national and Conference ministries, forcing cutbacks and curtailment of many important programs.
And suggest the solution:
This annual report reflects our denomination’s accomplishments and highlights and, if we are honest, our setbacks and shortcomings. It also announces the initiation of the Still Speaking Initiative—a bold plan for church-wide renewal. In the days ahead, our churches will hear more about the “God is still speaking,” [sic] national identity campaign, which portrays the story, image and ministry of the United Church of Christ, inviting the unchurched into our congregations. The Still Speaking Initiative also seeks to inspire greater generosity in our members and to increase giving to the local church and its wider settings—in the knowledge that healthy, vital congregations are the foundation and the future of the United Church of Christ.
The ads, then, will be part of a strategy to invite the unchurched into the UCC, as well as to increase contributions to support activities at the national level (referred to as the OCWM).
It is anticipated that this program will place them “at odds with society… requiring resistance, daring and decisive action” as it did for their forebears.
We often have been referred to as the “early” church, because we’ve been early in addressing the important issues facing our society and taking uncomfortable positions that sometimes go against cultural acceptability. Why? Because we love Jesus more than the lure of respectability.
Among these positions:
• Forebears of the UCC were the first mainline church to take a public stand against slavery, in the year 1700.
• We were the first predominantly Euro-American church to ordain an African American as a minister—Lemuel Haynes in 1785…
• We were the church that initiated the defense of the Amistad captives in 1839, and supported their case to the Supreme Court, which eventually led to their freedom.
• We ordained the first woman to ministry, Antoinette Brown, in 1853…
• As a denomination, we were on the front lines of racial desegregation and, in 1959, we challenged the Federal Communications Commission to allow people of color to have access to and be seen on the televised airwaves.
• We ordained the first openly gay person, William Johnson, in 1972.
Thus, they are placing the action they are going to take in the same vein as social action initiatives they have undertaken in the past, and which they say have cost them some respectability.
They go on to quote one of their laypersons: “Give up the comfortable. Allow someone else to learn and lead, and with my eyes look around — there’s so much more God wants me to do. And with risk comes blessing.” And they say to themselves, “CONSIDER… OUR FUTURE… in support of a church embodying resistance and daring in our generation” (italics in original).
They lay out the program this way:
These are tough times for the Church. Giving is down in mainline churches and, on Sunday mornings, most pews are filled with graying worshipers. A recent survey revealed that 87 percent of Americans feel that religion is important to their lives. Yet only 42 percent of Christians attend worship services on a regular basis. Even more startling—85 percent of mainline churches are in a state of membership decline.
If so many people feel that religion is important, why do so few attend church? There are several reasons: a large segment of our society has little or no church background; others feel that worship is boring and uninspiring; some maintain the church has lost its vision in society; others have had a negative personal experience in the church and feel unwelcome.
The religious community faces a choice: either we do things the way we’ve always done them and continue to face declining membership, or we learn from our culture and embrace new ways to tell our story of faithful devotion to the gospel of Jesus Christ….
The Still Speaking Initiative, in collaboration with Covenanted Ministries and Conferences, is in the initial stages of addressing the many challenges before us—spiritual, financial, and demographic. New television commercials will air in 2004 to let the unchurched know about the UCC’s unique witness and welcome. …
The 2004 annual report follows in this vein, and the program becomes evident:
2004 began with a mad scramble. The decision had been made—full speed ahead with a strategic, five-year marketing plan to proclaim to the world that anyone could find a home in the United Church of Christ. The Stillspeaking Initiative was formally established as an independent, inter-covenantal department reporting to the Executive Council, and an advisory task group was created….
From this it appears that the decision to launch the program, with its ads, had been made. It was only after this that the advertising agency was sent out to find evidence. Not surprisingly, they did:
One of the first items of business was to hold focus groups in three test market areas to gain objective input into what unchurched people thought about the church…. Here are some excerpts from the findings of the report issued by the advertising agency working with TSI:
• Almost no one in any of the focus groups was aware of the UCC.
• Disaffection from the church was very apparent. Everyone had a story stemming from personal rejection, disappointment, and the failure of the church to be there for them.
• Several themes ran through the meetings. One, in particular, was emphasized repeatedly: the need for openness and acceptance of all God’s children by the church.
Participants were unanimous—the church needs to be a welcoming place that uplifts one’s self-image and encourages individuals to be a vital member of the community
The focus group leaders concluded that alienation was at the heart of these individuals’ disaffection with the church. “Alienation is about real personal experiences and deep hurts that have caused people to turn away from the church. It is not about the rejection of God or spirituality.” However, even with deep levels of distrust—even anger—projected at the church, the focus group participants gave positive feedback. Facilitators observed, “There appears to be a genuine opportunity to bring these people back because they are open to a welcoming church community and extended support system.” The final report provided clear direction: “A positive, welcoming, come as you are message will reach the desired audience.”
They describe the meaning of the commercial this way:
The 30-second TV commercial, “The Bouncer,” has been hailed as a masterful piece of storytelling in the tradition of Jesus’ parables. The burley bouncers are a metaphor for that which alienates people from the church. While no church actually has bouncers outside its doors, it’s obvious to many (often through the painful experience of rejection) that they are held at arm’s length. For whatever reason—age, ethnicity, disability, socio-economic status, sexual identity, whatever—these children of God, in search of a spiritual home, feel left out in the cold.
Along with the ad, the UCC redesigned its website to focus on the ad and the TSI, as well, which has its own logo and website (http://www.stillspeaking.com/default.htm). The logo of the UCC is fairly conventional:
The symbol of the TSI is a comma, from a quote attributed to Gracie Allen: “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”
The home page of the UCC website was rebuilt around that comma, which had a flash display with pictures of diverse, smiling people running through it. The text that goes with the comma is “God is still speaking,” One might even say that the TSI had crowded out the older image of the UCC. The logo of the UCC is small and below the main display. On many computers it would not show up in the initial screen. One would have to scroll down to find it, and there is no reason in the initial screen to suppose that one will find anything by scrolling down. Many of the links take one to the TSI website, form which it is not easy to get back.
At any rate, to hear UCC tell the story, they were on the verge of something big:
With the roll-out of the commercial on independent and cable stations, and the resulting denial [sic] by CBS, NBC and ABC to air the commercial, we received more publicity than we could have hoped for. During December, we posted 787,056 web visits (compared to 80,000 per month earlier in the year) and 137,103 visits to the “Find a UCC Church ” option (there were 4,000 hits in November).
Testimonies from people alienated by the church filled e-mail boxes at the national setting, and many stories of hope were shared on the special edition Yule Blog at ucc.org. Stories from pastors also flooded in, many about visitors checking out their churches…
Under the headline “Stillspeaking’s ‘bouncer’ receives ‘biggie’ advertising award, the Church announced that
The UCC’s “bouncer” television commercial, which aired nationally in December 2004 and March 2005, has received one of the advertising industry’s most significant honors.
The Association of National Advertisers awarded the United Church of Christ with its 2005 Multicultural Excellence Award for its 30-second commercial that touted the denomination’s insistence that “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.”
But whatever awards and publicity were garnered by the ad, as far as its recruitment purpose was concerned, it was a flop. According to the 2006 yearbook of the UCC, membership dropped during 2004 by 2.38 percent, the largest decline of any church surveyed by the NCC . To be sure, there was only one month in 2004 in which the effect of the commercial could have been felt, but a landslide had been expected, and it did not happen. Worse, as I write this in August 2006, the recently published UCC yearbook for 2006 reveals that membership in 2005 fell to 1,229,953, a drop of 3.3 percent from 2005.
Though they were surely aware of these trends as they were developing, the UCC was undeterred and pushed ahead with the second commercial, which was be part of a campaign budgeted at 1.5 million dollars. “To change would be to back down. And the U.C.C. is not an institution that traditionally backs down,” said Michael Jordan of Gotham , the UCC ad agency.
Yet reality still refused to shape up, and in the end it had its way. On June 7, 2006 , the UCC announced that Ron Buford had resigned as head of TSI, effective June 30, and that he would take up a new role as “consultant with the Congregational Vitality Initiative (CVI) of the UCC’s Local Church Ministries to assist trainers who will incorporate the best of The Stillspeaking Initiative into CVI” (Administrator, 2006) .
The TSI website, though removed from its dominant position, is still available from the UCC site. It still celebrates the joyfulness of the campaign and tells us that
“Ejector” now ranks as “most popular commercial” on “ifilm” website. The UCC’s new “ejector” TV ad is now ranked as the most-popular [sic] commercial at <ifilm.com>, a well-known online hosting site for videos.
However, without fanfare, they added another commercial to their site. This one, which was intended as a follow-on to the Bouncer commercial, but almost never aired, is called “Steeples.” It begins with a little girl reciting the nursery rhyme “Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people.” Then a diverse group says “all the people,” and there is the voice over which says, “God accepts al the people, so do we. The United Church of Christ . No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.”
The Unconscious Meaning of the Commercials
As we saw, the commercials were introduced with the prediction that they would garner social disapproval. The critical question is, why would “inviting the unchurched” be seen as the kind of groundbreaking progressive move that would stir such disapproval? What had the commercials’ creators in mind that would be “risky” and would “embody resistance and daring”?
In fact, they did lose respectability. But I want to suggest that the response of the networks was not against the inclusiveness, but to the offensiveness of the ads themselves. The disapproval the UCC elite rightly anticipated was not to the content of the offerings, but to their manner.
In other words, the meaning of the ads is not the offer of welcome. The message of welcome, as such, was represented in both ads by the final images of happy, diverse groups of people. And in fact this was the full content of the “steeples” ad. But the offer of welcome was obviously not what made the ads stand out. What gave the ads their characteristic identity was the accusation of a refusal of welcome on the part of “organized religion.” What the ads offered is not so much a welcoming church as an aggressive church: a church that resists and attacks oppression. This is the only element of the ads that their producers could possibly have had in mind when they prepared the ground for social disapproval. It was, of course, the antagonistic side that created the controversy and that was clearly responsible for the “edge” of which the UCC was so proud.
But having said that the second meaning of the ad is resistance to oppression, we have hardly put ourselves in the position of understanding its controversy. For, by itself, fighting against oppression is hardly more controversial than inclusion. If the ads simply presented the church as fighting against oppression in some sort of abstract way, or even in the terms of fighting in the name of some commonly agreed oppressed group, there would not have been such uproar. Obviously, the thing that caught the attention was that the ads represented the church as fighting oppression manifested by “organized religion.”
It was “organized religion” that was rejecting people, causing them to be alienated from religion, and doing this in sufficient numbers that these rejects could be energized by the ad into joining the UCC and rejuvenating it. It was this idea, combined with their placement of themselves in contrast to “organized religion” by offering what they called “extravagant welcome”, that gave the ads their particular flavor, their edginess, and was ultimately responsible for their failure to reach the church’s ostensible objectives. This suggests that the ostensible recruitment objective was only one of the objectives. The other was the bashing of “organized religion.”
As we saw at the beginning, though, the charge that organized religion was rejecting people on the basis of disabilities and so on is absurd. UCC could not have gotten the idea from observation of organized religion in the world. What exactly was it that they saw themselves as bashing, and how did they get that idea?
Rejection in the Mind of UCC
We can get insight into the mind of the UCC by looking at a website they set up to garner stories in response to the ads: www.rejectionhurts.com This website offers itself as “an online community where people can share their personal stories of how they felt unwanted or alienated by organized religion.” The stories are prefaced with this:
Have you or someone you know ever felt rejected by religion? Tell us your story here. Please refrain from mentioning specific denominations or churches in your story.
We will regularly post some of the stories that have been submitted. We encourage you to visit this site often and pass it on to your family and friends
I would like to note, at the outset, the evident conflation between feeling “unwanted or alienated by organized religion” and feeling “rejected by organized religion.” Rejection, one would suppose, implies a positive, directed antagonism; not being wanted, however, is consistent with passive indifference. The conflation is an important one, and will tell us much about the mind of UCC.
Turning to the stories themselves, it must first be said that many describe events that can scarcely have been reported objectively or relate stories that can scarcely have been told in full. In fact, in some cases the actions supposedly taken by the church or its parishioners are hard to imagine. Some examples are below. When direct quotes are used, the matter is unedited:
A 68-year-old man is ejected from his church because he can only afford a $3,000 per year contribution, while they demand $7,000+.
A woman attends the church her grandmother belongs to, but her husband does not attend. When she gets pregnant, she is accused of lying about her marriage and buying a wedding ring for herself to cover up being pregnant out of wedlock.
A woman is seen crying because, after 32 years of abuse, she leaves her husband, but is then told she must leave the church, to which she has belonged for all that time because she is “tainting the flock.”
“While attending the wedding of a friend, in another denomination, my infant child [sic] began fussing as she was hungry. Knowing her schedule I had planned to feed her during the service, but before I could get to it I WAS ASKED TO LEAVE.”
“Having deligent [sic] tried to follow the endless series of rules related to my “church”, being constantly reprimanded for endless infractions and advised I needed to contribute more I had the horrible expirence [sic] of finding out my spouse was engaged in fornication with several members of the congregation. I was chastised for failing to provide enough attention to her and working to [sic] much.”
Of course, a degree of distortion and selective narration is what one would expect. There is no control for the veracity of these stories. One would have no way of knowing whether they present a biased view, or for that matter whether they are pure fantasy. An individual who wanted to rehearse a grievance would know that he could present his story in the most favorable light and get it published in a world-wide forum. The tendency to do that would have been very great, and it is impossible to imagine that nobody yielded to it.
Our interest, though, is not in whether the stories are true. We cannot know that. What we can know, and what interests us, is the fact that UCC chose these stories to represent the kind of responses they thought validated their commercials. They tell us what the meaning of the commercials was to UCC, and therefore offer insight into the way the church sees itself.
That a selection process was in place is clear. For one thing, the UCC acknowledged that they would only post only some of the stories. Second, in an internal email to UCC pastors, and in an FAQ posted on the site, the officials said that they would not post messages of complaint from UCC members. This is from the pastor email:
We expect there to be “rejection” stories from UCC people who want turn [sic] the site to their own purposes. These stories will not be posted. People writing about internal UCC experiences may challenge us for not posting their story in notes to you. Please feel free to frame your own reply or use something like this: “Rejectionhurts.com is a witness to the world, not a showcase for internal theological or political debates and disagreements. The clear focus of the Stillspeaking Initiative is to help people overcome their alienation from God. It is to them that rejectionhurts.com is directed.”
I tested the selectivity by submitting a story in which I claimed to be a woman who had recently moved to a more affluent neighborhood and found herself shunned by a church congregation for saying that she and her husband had voted for George Bush and supported the war in Iraq . The story was not posted to the site.
The following themes emerge from the stories. First, there is no recognition on the part of any of these story-tellers that anything that they did was responsible for the outcomes they experienced. These are all stories of egregious victimization at the hands of the rejecting church.
No student of psychoanalysis will be surprised at such denial of responsibility, but we need to understand that we are looking at a Christian church here, and that one of the defining tenets of Christianity is that we area all sinners. The acceptance of oneself as a sinner is the acceptance of responsibility. By standing behind the moral validity of these stories, the UCC is accepting the denial of responsibility as a valid ground for membership in a Christian church and, in fact, validating the deflection of that responsibility onto the rejecting church itself.
My favorite in this regard was the story called: Mohawks Not Welcomed:
I am gothic and a Christian [sic]. I happily attended a [non-UCC] church until I went on their youth camp. I was put into the communal sleeping area with the 13-17 year olds (I am 21), and the entire weekend I had people coming up to me asking if I wanted them to pray with me, just because I had a mohawk and wore thick black eyeliner. Their “meetings” were compulsary [sic] and they kept on encouraging people to come up to the front and get prayed over, to the point where they were threatening to point out individuals in the congregation. When I tried to leave the meeting, they said that I had to stay or they would send me home in a taxi (which would have cost about $150). After the camp was over, I never went back to that church again.
Consider here the way the writer takes the response to his Mohawk and eye-liner, which can have no function except to elicit a response, as illegitimate on the part of the church. There is no acceptance of responsibility for causing that response.
A second point is the failure to distinguish between indifference and rejection. For instance:
I was raised in a literalist church. In my mid-teens I was doubting, and discouraged by treatment from the other teens. After all the youth programs, adult classes, and every Sunday worship, a woman with whom I had long worshipped shook my hand during one service and asked if I was new because she’d never seen me. It shook my core that “godly people” would consider me so invisible. It was a signpost of that church’s lacking… I am glad for the message and hospitality (and the seeking and partnering attitude) of the UCC, and the fair treatment I’ve received. If other churches feel a sting from its message, then they should do some soul-searching. (I already did — now it’s their turn.)
Third, similarly, there is a failure to acknowledge the viability of any rules or demands. In some cases, this concerns specific moral principles, such as rejection of homosexual behavior, divorce, or sex outside of marriage
When a Different Lifestyle Doesn’t “Fit In”
In the early 80’s, after an extremely difficult time in my life, I reconfirmed my commitment to God and began attending a fairly fundamentalist church. Although I was treated well and helped out (I was a single parent at the time, one of only about 5 or 6 in a congregation of about 500), I began to feel that I was more of a “project” of the women’s ministry than an accepted member. I tried a few other Churches over the following years but I finally gave up altogether because I couldn’t deal with the intolerance towards others in different lifestyles. I actually began to see the mainstream Christian church as a hostile place for many.
In some cases, it runs to a rejection of rules altogether:
“I Will Now Find You.”
Wow! I’ve just recently seen the very wonderfully conceived “ejector pew” commercial. I do not physically identify with any of the ejectees, nor do I lead what some call an “alternate” lifestyle. But, I have been so appalled and disgusted by the petty human squabbling over following some set of perceived rules….that I just have had to stay away. And yet I need to be with people who are cognizant of the simple, powerful, perfect message of Love that Jesus continually gives. So, to whomever wrote, directed, produced the ad: Thanks for seeking me out…and the 1,000’s of others just like me. I will now find you! I look forward to learning again…. smiles
Stipulations Not Required
I recently saw your commercial and I was shocked, I’ve been searching for many years to find some thing [sic] worth believeing [sic] in but every major relegion [sic] has every kind of stipulation [sic] imaginable (even though the bible says not to judge). Seeing that commercial gave hope to a very discouraged girl. And I pray that you truly stand for every thing [sic] you advertised. I’ll be checking out you site.
Often, general moral rules are seen as personal affronts:
After 24 years in my church, I married a man of a different denomination, in his church. My church didn’t seem to care about that, I was welcome. Three years later, we’d divorced due to his mistreatment of me and his abandonment of the marriage. Not long after, I was told that I could attend church, but I couldn’t participate in communion because I’d married outside the faith and then divorced. I still attended, but sporadically. One Sunday, my mother convinced me to go to church with her. Everything was fine until the sermon. It was about the “signs of death in the church”. According to the sermon, the worst was divorce and that those that divorce are going to hell. I was furious. I had done nothing wrong, and I was being told I was going to hell. I turned to my mother, told her I was leaving and would never again set foot in that church.
Fourth, there is in many stories a failure of the sense of proportion. Personal offenses are generalized to the church:
The (Negative) Power of One
We had a very interesting situation happen in our church… the woman who was the Sun. school teacher for our son during his confirmation year, did something we felt as parents was extremely UnChristian like [sic]…the very FIRST (& only time) time we served as greeters at our new Sancutary [sic], she met us (all 3 of us) and in a very demeaning tone point [sic] her finger and told our son how he hadn’t done his church work and she was definitely [sic] going to tell on him (the look on her face was nasty)… After that she made him feel terrible [sic] in church school as well (she obviously didn’t like him), and made it a point to call me when and if he hadn’t done whatever [sic] she felt in a timely manner. We haven’t signed up for anything since then and a year after that she was given a new title of a “new Stephen Ministery [sic] person.” If we had gone to the church they couldn’t of [sic] done anything because she was and still is sneaky about such stuff. Alot [sic] of the parents have known this. We’re not as involved and could care less anymore and this incident has changed our like for this chuch [sic] totally, because of her.
Or small events are elevated to massive assaults. This is clearly the case in the previously cited account of the young man offended when “a woman with whom I had long worshipped shook my hand during one service and asked if I was new because she’d never seen me. It shook my core that ‘godly people’ would consider me so invisible.” Similarly:
In college, I was accosted by a teen girl whose church had sent her youth group to collar concert-goers and follow them to their cars arguing salvation, as if that would convince someone to instantly fall to the sidewalk and “become a new creature through Christ.” I was appalled and insulted by their naively unquestioning insinuations—the only “new creature” I’d become was ignored and suicidal. I was so angry at her hubris I wanted to punch her.
Finally, while demands made upon the individual are denied and seen as affronts, demands made upon the church, even when unreasonable, are seen as entitlements. For instance, in the story above, Mr. Mohawk takes it as one of the church’s affronts that “when I tried to leave the meeting, they said that I had to stay or they would send me home in a taxi (which would have cost about $150).” Now, the only way this makes sense is if we assume that Mr. Mohawk wanted to be driven home, either in an individual’s car or in the church bus, and that this must have been, given the taxi fare, quite a far distance. He is taking their perfectly reasonable refusal as a personal abuse.
Altogether, what these stories have in common is that they are all expressions of resentment. What stands out about these accounts is their pettiness. They all represent personal, one might even say petty, grievances which are elevated to the point of high principle. The existence of an external reality that makes demands and imposes constraints is taken as a personal affront. Their premise appears to be that the world is supposed to conform itself to our wishes and validate us just as we are.
Psychoanalysis tells us that this world is cast in the image of the primordial mother. For a church to define itself as a place that will fulfill these individuals’ wishes, providing a feeling of validation to all these individuals who feel as if they have been rejected, means the church is offering itself in just that maternal way.
We can also say that the interpretation of reality’s constraints as being the result of agency (Ejectors, bouncers) means that they are being interpreted as caused by the father. What we see, then, is a rejection of the father in the name of the omnipotent mother.
Denial of Aggression
Consistent with its identification with the primordial mother is a denial of aggression on the part of the UCC. The ads are clearly accusations, aggressive acts, as the networks made plain their rejections. For example:
According to Jacobs, the church proposed two ads, NBC accepted one but. rejected the other because it “violated our longstanding policy against accepting ads dealing with issues of public controversy.” The controversy, said NBC, stemmed from the ad’s suggestion that “other religions are not open to all people.”
Specifically, NBC said it rejected the ad not because it featured a homosexual couple, but “based solely on the fact that it suggests that gay couples, African Americans, Hispanics and people with disabilities are not welcome in some churches, which constitutes a controversial issue” (http://www.broadcastingcable.com/article/CA 486541. html?display=Breaking+News&referral=SUPP).
However, the UCC denies any aggression, saying that they are just messages of inclusion. In their view, the ads were rejected because the “message of openness and welcome stated in the new UCC ad is ‘too controversial’.” This is from an email sent out by the Justice and Witness Ministries (JWM) of the UCC:
Once again, a new UCC commercial, which invites all people into the church, has been rejected by the networks, their affiliate cable stations, and Viacom. Every day, the networks air advertising laced with sexual innuendo, violence, materialism, and the politics of personal destruction, yet the message of openness and welcome stated in the new UCC ad is “too controversial” to be shown. While some stations are still airing our ad, many communities, particularly those without access to cable, will never see this ad.
If a spokesperson for CBS is to be believed, it appears that Buford went so far as to make up a conversation.
Buford said CBS executives had told him the subject would be considered advocacy advertising until the inclusion of gays and lesbians is common at churches in the United States . But Jacobs challenged that statement. “That supposed exchange is simply fictitious,” she said. (KNOX National News, via Scripps Howard News Service, 3/27/2006 ).
We have no reason to doubt Buford’s sincerity in his contrary recollection of the conversation. He is probably just remembering the sense of what went on in the only way that he could make sense of it, and then just filling in details that fit. The primordial mother, after all, is made out of love. There is no aggression in her, so therefore the UCC always acts with love and nothing but love. The aggression is externalized onto those who refuse to accept and amplify the message of love, and then seen as directed against her and her clientele.
Marketing the Mother Church
Interestingly, the best evidence seems to be that, despite what the UCC thought they found in their focus groups, it is the paternal church that appeals to parishioners, not the maternal. This is a suggested by the rise in membership of more traditional denominations during the period of mainline decline, which we noted earlier and which is borne out by some specifically directed research.
Methodologically, research attempting to assess the reasons for church membership is a difficult business, largely due to difficulties in defining what a church member is. One of the better studies of recent times was done by Johnson, Hoge, and Luidens (1993) and also published in First Things. In this study, they interviewed people who had been confirmed in the Presbyterian Church during the sixties to determine what had become of their religious life. Their study, of course, confirmed that many had left the mainline church and that, for the most part, this was due to the fact that
religion itself had become low on their list of personal priorities. They pray occasionally, they hold Jesus in high esteem, and they have some interest in such questions as the purpose of existence and the fate of the soul after death, but they do not consider it necessary to attend church in order to nourish what faith they have.
So what was true of those who remained church members?
In our study, the single best predictor of church participation turned out to be belief—orthodox Christian belief, and especially the teaching that a person can be saved only through Jesus Christ. Virtually all our baby boomers who believe this are active members of a church. Among those who do not believe it, some are active in varying degrees; a great many are not. Ninety-five percent of the drop-outs who describe themselves as religious do not believe it.
Of those that were church members, the hypothesis that had the best support was one offered
by Dean M. Kelley in his controversial book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, published in 1972. Kelly argued that the mainline denominations have lost members because they have become weak as religious bodies. Strong religions provide clear-cut, compelling answers to questions concerning the meaning of life, mobilize their members’ energies for shared purposes, require a distinctive code of conduct, and discipline their members for failure to live up to it. Weak religions allow a diversity of theological viewpoints, do not and can not command much of their members’ time or effort, promote few if any distinctive rules of conduct, and discipline no one for violating them. In short, strong religions foster a level of commitment that binds members to the group; weak religions have low levels of commitment and are unable to resist influences that lower it even further.
Similarly, within the mainline dominations themselves:
In Acts of Faith (University of California Press, 2000) Stark and Finke showed that United Methodist congregations with evangelical pastors had rapidly rising attendance and expendi-tures. Although some congregations with evangelical pastors did decline, the rate was half that of congregations without evangelical pastors. The Methodist conferences with the largest proportion of evangelical pastors and churches—those in the South and Southeast—have actually started growing. (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/008/1.34.htm)
In a word, the father church grows stronger while the mother churches declines.
The Insupportability of Being Merely Human
Earlier, I pointed out that the mother church adopts the position of God. It is ultimately this identification that determines the repudiation of the father that we see in the commercials. The father is only human, the primordial mother is not; she is divine. But the members of the church, even its officials, are human. Therefore they must take the parts of themselves that are merely human and refuse them entry to the church, or eject them once they are there. We will refer to both of these as rejection.
In the commercials, it appears that those being rejected are the ones who make church members, and especially the white males, uncomfortable. I suggest that, at a deeper level, something else is going on. It is not only those who cause the discomfort that are being rejected, but the discomfort is also being rejected. The rejectees are functioning as classic scapegoats; they are taking the sins of the group along with them. That is their function: their rejection has the purpose of maintaining the image of the group as the ego ideal by representing its shameful elements, which are then rejected.
But whose discomfort is it that is being rejected? I suggest that it is the discomfort of the church’s elite. They are, after all, the elite of a Christian church, a religion whose foundational premise is that we are all sinners. But as we have seen, the Church elite has identified itself with God, who of course has no sin. This poses a real problem for them.
Ordinary Christians may be able to maintain an image of themselves as sinners; this means that they can acknowledge and own their discomfort. Therefore, their discomfort does not pose a problem for the church, and cannot be the psychological ground of the rejection. We can see this most clearly in the element of the commercials that appears to be most odd, which was the rejection of the disabled. As we saw, there cannot be a serious claim that a Christian church would turn somebody away because the person cannot walk. But there is certainly a basis for saying that people, probably most people, feel discomfort in the presence of a person who has lost the use of his legs. They remind us of the short distance between our own health and our own potential disability. We do not want to know about this, and therefore are uncomfortable in the presence of someone who brings it to our mind.
But this is as likely to be true of the church elite as of anyone else, and indeed more so, precisely since they cannot acknowledge their discomfort. Hence, there is no ground for saying that the rejection is less about the elite than it is about anybody else. But their discomfort is absolutely intolerable to them. Something must be done with it.
We began this analysis with the question who is the rejecting church, and what are they rejecting? The answer is that the rejecting church is the elite of the UCC, and they are rejecting themselves. But our exploration has brought us to the point where we can see that there is a level of meaning beyond that. For we can see that, in reality, the discomfort that is being rejected is the discomfort of the elite. What is really being rejected, then, is the elite itself. They are both rejecter and rejected.
This is what I call religion against itself.
Our analysis has laid out a link that can take us back to the beginning. The comma that the UCC claims to find at the end of God’s word is a repudiation of what has gone before, in the sense that it leaves it all open to revision and reinterpretation. There is none of it to which one must subordinate oneself. This is exactly the rejection of constraint that Lasch brought to our attention. To repeat his description of the elite citizen fashioned after Ortega y Gasset’s mass man in revolt:
He was “incapable of submitting to direction of any kind.” Lacking any comprehension of the fragility of civilization or the tragic character of history, he lived unthinkingly in the “assurance that tomorrow [the world] will be still richer, ampler, more perfect, as if it enjoyed a spontaneous, inexhaustible power of increase.” He was concerned only with his own well-being and looked forward to a future of “limitless possibilities” and “complete freedom.”
What we can now see, though, is that rejection is not only on the social level, but on the individual, as well. The UCC elite are rejecting the demands made upon them by the Christian tradition, followed as it is by the body of the Church, but they are also rejecting the demands that they make upon themselves. They must therefore reject themselves, and they must do this continuously and programmatically. Whatever they are, they must throw over. This throwing over is the only content that their identity can have, and indeed they can have it only until it is pointed out to them, which helps to explain their manifest fragility and sensitivity to criticism. In the end, the identity of the creative person is what John Keats called “negative identity.”
But Keats did not have in mind that this negative identity would come to constitute the organizing principle of society. He thought of is as a feature of the creative individual. Yet it is readily seen, ironically, that creativity is by no means a feature of the UCC. Their positions, for example, are identical not only with the other mainline Protestant churches, but with leftwing social activist groups, even of the militantly secular kind. The television commercials may give them new expression, but what they express has by now become hackneyed and trite.
The reason for this is that creativity has been undermined by its own regressive pull. The function of the father in creativity has been lost. The father is not the muse, but he teaches us the discipline that goes with the development of the creative craft and the production of the created work. He gives us the advantage, in our own creativity, of what has gone before. So it was that Isaac Newton, who more than anyone else created mathematical physics, said that the reason he could see so far is that he stood on the shoulders of giants. In his absence, the apotheosis of one’s own spontaneity leads to no product but only to the destruction of everything outside one’s own emptiness. Compare Ludwig van Beethoven with John Cage. This is not creativity, but nihilism.
What has been said of the elite of the UCC is equally true of the other elites to which Lasch referred. Political correctness, their ideology, universally involves identification with the primitive maternal. It therefore equally has no place for the merely human, which it must condemn and reject. This reflection cannot lead to any optimism regarding the prospects for the society which these elites purport to lead.
Buchanan., Wyatt. (2006). TV networks reject ad from church: Say spot welcoming gays is controversial. San Francisco Chronicle, March 28: D12.
Johnson, Bento, Dean R. Hoge & Donald A. Luidens. (1993). Mainline Churches: The Real Reason for Decline. First Things 31 (March): 13-18.
Lasch, Christopher. (1995). The Revolt of the Elites. New York : Norton.
Lewis, Michael. (1990). Liar’s Poker. New York : Penguin.
Schwartz, Howard S. (2003). The Revolt of the Primitive: An Inquiry into the Roots of Political Correctness. Piscataway , NJ : Transaction.
Turner, Philip. (2005). An Unworkable Theology. First Things 154 (June/July): 10-12
 When I speak here about the mind of UCC, I mean the mind of the UCC elite, those members who have the power to define the activities of the UCC, and who have defined it in terms of a certain outlook. It is the outlook that this elite’s components share, together with the psychological processes that lead them to have this outlook, which is of interest to me. I do not mean the attitudes of ordinary UCC members, or for that matter the attitudes of the ordinary members of any of the mainline denominations. These are often strikingly different from those of the elite, a fact that has led to great conflict within the churches. For example, the elite of the Presbyterian church, speaking in the name of the church, passed a resolution supporting economic divestiture from Israel and condemning its security barrier. Shortly thereafter, a general meeting of church members voted, with a 95% majority, to rescind that resolution.
· The American Baptist Churches USA
· The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
· The Episcopal Church
· The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
· The Presbyterian Church (USA)
· The United Church of Christ
· The United Methodist Church
Facilis Descensus Averno , Part I
A Diffusely Comparative Study of Romantic Illusion and Social Dissolution
John R. Harris
Dr. John Harris is founder and executive director of The Center for Literate Values. He has taught English and foreign language (Latin, French, Spanish) in numerous settings from elementary to graduate school.
“Tros Anchisiade, facilis descensus Averno :
noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,
hoc opus, hic labor est.”
Vergil, Aeneid 6.126-129
“Trojan son of Anchises, easy the descent to the Avernus.
Night and day, the door of gloomy Dis lies open.
But to bend back one’s steps and escape to the bright air above—
Herein lies the challenge, the labor.”
I. The Synthetic Approach to Comparison
For some time, I have nursed the intention of writing about the literary genre of romance in a broadly comparative fashion and for the sake, at last, of better understanding our current cultural catastrophe. The romance fascinates me in several respects, among which are the following. 1) It is utterly absent from literary history for centuries, then proceeds to dominate that history and—in our own time—to oversee the transformation of literature into electronic story-telling. 2) It is the epic’s lubricious mate at an early stage, borrowing from the same popular sources and adopting the same vastly ambient style; yet it rejects formal epic strictures such as verse and “high” speech while favoring details and individual characters over epic’s blunt formulas and rigid heroic archetypes. 3) The romance’s initially close relationship with literacy is surely no accident. However, the genre perversely fuses with “low” literacy as time goes on—and even, in contemporary terms (as I have observed), with television and cinema—rather than cementing a bond with the highly developed literacy of, say, the psychological novel.
These curiosities of the genre are but the first-comers. The list already fumes with an odor of betrayal, writhes with the motion of a snake shedding its skin. Viewed beside the oral saga’s chanting old prophetess or the literate epic’s stately muse, romance seems something of a strumpet. It laces arms with the most admired genres of its day, pretending to dance dutifully to their tribal drum; yet as tastes begin to change, it somehow alters its footwork without missing a beat to the different tempo of a new drummer. Did I write “something of a strumpet”? The romance may well exhibit the most readily metamorphic wantonness of any narrative form known to humanity!
The method of my investigation will be comparative in a fashion which honesty compels me to call diffuse. My ultimate objective is to feel out the genre’s sentimental ground rules, its unique aesthetic fingerprint, for the purpose of studying how it has paralleled, finessed, and infused our economic and political life and our moral outlook today. In so wide-ranging an investigation, I fear that the mincing style of “scholarly writing” on the genre would suggest such minute and under-the-foot reference points as to forestall any genuine advance. Excellent scholarly works there surely are, and far superior in their way to anything of which I am capable; but I cannot say too often (and will never waste an occasion to say) that the art work’s appeal is to fundamental human reflective patterns and tendencies—not to social or cultural conditioning. The human being who turns existential crises in his head interests me vastly more than the human animal which turns a treadmill in its cage. I seek to make sense of a given age’s habits and morals as a extension of human nature forced to follow a certain vector. Art particularly assists us in isolating the point of the compass where the strongest currents veer at any historical moment, because works of art are both concrete and imaginative: they assemble an objective, clearly perceptible image from vague ambitions, prejudices, longings, fears, and other imperceptible but vital human data. They give us something to look at compiled from the human world’s most important invisible elements.
The conventional scholar, in contrast, is altogether too deterministic and linear with phenomena which have much of the whimsical about them, and whose interrelations are hopelessly complex (being both causes and effects most of the time). “Historical cause” is the scholarly point of origin; the fact of war or disease or catastrophic natural event then proceeds to social order, politics, morality, and the rest, all aligned as neatly as a row of falling dominoes. The scholar’s paradigm is not a compass’s circle with distinct quadrants, but a straight, sealed corridor; for the point of departure is not the native resources of the human intellect, but the empirical catalysts suggested by a royal mausoleum or an inscription. The scholar wants to hear not a word about how people think or feel—only about what sword or spear was nudging them from behind and what golden carrot was dangling before their nose. That such preoccupations in themselves imply a theory of the human psyche is not his concern. Once he has “hard evidence”, the idle dilettante may toy with implications all the livelong day.
Yet we cannot ignore the fact that our species is sentimental in the most puzzling ways just because sentiments make unsteady ground for objective research. Although human beings often appear to indulge or stress different emotions in differing cultures, the convergence of emotional expressions at certain stages of culture licenses some speculation about essential human nature beyond the particularizing influences of environment. Correlations across cultural lines need not be minutely exact: knowledge of historical circumstances need not be flawlessly thorough. (For that matter, how could it be?) The true literary comparatist does not seek to put the scholar out of business, but only to restrain the scholar from eliminating synthetic, generalizing thought from intellectual life as “dilettante” or “belletristic” (if I have correctly spelled that stuffy academic barbarism).
In the case of the romance, the classical scholar’s labors illustrate my reservations in a stunningly naïve manner. Graham Anderson begins his fine little book by reviewing the generations of perplexity inspired by the ancient Greco-Roman romance:
It is not clear why we should have to wait till the first century BC or so for someone to think of putting two adolescents on a boat but effectively preventing their sexual union for most of the plot. The problem has concerned scholars since at least the seventeenth century.1
Is it such a problem, then, that other ages should delay embracing what we regard as the most obvious of story-lines? One would have thought that scholars, more than anyone else, would haste to point out that cultural setting can significantly affect even the most natural and forthright of human emotions. The problem is really that classical scholars are too little aware of how human emotions work—of how certain environmental pressures are apt to bring sexual love and intense anxiety about the immediate future to the fore, in this case. Anderson reveals that his 300 years’ worth of predecessors have been seeking a literary progenitor (Egyptian, Hebrew, Indian) for the romance, as if only those infamous falling dominoes of historical cause-and-effect could explain anything. “A final solution is at hand,” he reassures us—and then unveils Babylon as the appropriately exotic domino which toppled upon theretofore non-romantic Greek literature!
Of course, as comparatists have been bred in our own time, such synthesis as I propose is entirely out of bounds. It assumes the possibility of aesthetics—that is, of a universal deep structure to the human manner of processing perceptions. The mood of contemporary academe is all diversity and relativism (along with the naïve confidence in historical or material cause which we have just witnessed). To suggest a common bottom stratum to all human experience is to be a cultural imperialist, forcing one’s own prejudices upon others rather than rendering oneself infinitely pliant to other value systems (even those which have never existed among any large group of sane adults for any length of time). So the kind of study prosecuted here is in no danger of replicating anything to be found in recent publications: it is Comparative Literature of the sort which might have been, had that undisciplined discipline not been shanghaied at birth (to use a “culturally bigoted” verb whose colorful history I like) by lock-step politicizing. Today’s comparatists, as I have also written often, are but the stodgy historicists of the past requiring a revised passport for admittance to a revised literary canon. In the blanks demanding proof of literary qualities characteristic of the work’s time and place (proper metrical form, proper degree of optimism or pessimism, etc., etc.) are new blanks requiring proof of allegiance to favored groups and causes (author of proper gender and race, proper indignation with proper villains, etc., etc.). I shall not be passing out any such questionnaires.
Instead. I shall strive after an inductive Aristotelian approach, recruiting candidates hither and yon and tabulating their literary qualities while at the same time tentatively advancing a hypothetical definition of romance. I shall work in crudely chronological order, as do those anthologies for World Literature courses from which many of us have been condemned to teach for years; and, after the same fashion, I shall take minimal notice of cultural boundaries (though the anthologies usually pride themselves on insisting that no tradition is like any other, apparently ignoring that such a premise undermines the possibility of teaching World Literature coherently). Sensitive scholars should therefore be warned. I was once chided in print by a legendary scholar—most certainly the perigee of my own scholarly celebrity—for daring to bring the Gaelic bard Mary MacLeod into extended comparison with the Greek poetess Sappho: I was the quintessence of what had gone wrong in the world. With no great respect (for the legend in question had not actually read my article), I contend that, on the contrary what has gone wrong in the world—and a very great deal continues to go very wrong—is owed to the disappearance of synthetic thought from intellectual circles. Studies have been progressively compartmentalized over the past century in dull emulation of scientific method (a trend from which science itself has suffered severely). Even when the attempt is made to reassemble the pieces under some comparative or interdisciplinary aegis, presumption bullies induction, and evidence is suppressed or distorted to suit ideology. I might note, by the way, that the legendary detractor was careful not to choose a “gender critic” or social revolutionary to occupy his cross-hairs, though many such feed on Sappho’s savory fragments: even legends have to watch their back these days.
The simple truth cannot be avoided: no amount of circumstantial commentary can reach the heart of the literary phenomenon’s literarariness, its special arrangement of objects in a manner whose dynamism exceeds a casual inscription’s or a legal document’s by powers of ten. Gaffes, miscues, anachronisms, and all (and the aesthetic text, we may note, possesses a heightened ability to over-excite the reader’s imagination), the love of literature still trumps the knowledge of historical setting, for the literary text has survived history’s erosion, in most cases, precisely because it is not a mere cultural artifact. That our nation at the moment of this writing struggles hopelessly in certain endeavors due to its collective ignorance of other cultures cannot be disputed; but the only chance to resolve such struggles lies in locating the essential human datum beyond clouded cultural peculiaria. Sappho and Mary MacLeod meet at the top of the apple tree, where the reddest, ripest fruit grows just out of reach in a frustrating paradox. Why, any humble farmer knows that much—and any boy with an empty stomach knows the frustration!
II. Definition—and Criticism—of the Genre
A defense of the aesthetic experience’s uplifting, disinterested, and profoundly human pleasure is probably not what the reader expected to encounter after my initial warning about romance. I could easily evade the implicit contradiction by saying that those faces are most dangerous which are prettiest to behold—and, indeed, this is a large part of my case. The romance must surely rank as one of the most unconditionally entertaining narrative forms ever devised. It takes us to faraway places, often exotic or dangerous. It teases us with mystery, since the character of its central figures is not destiny (pace Aristotle) but a puny leaf, rather, in the vagrant winds of wholly external forces. It tends to stretch on and on in its various forms, consuming thick literary tomes or a decade’s worth of television seasons, defying all classical and neo-classical rules of coherence and concentrated effect, creating for us in its amplitude something very like an alternative reality—an escapist haven always rich in new adventure. Beaming upon the eternal trek, finally, like a discreet but self-willed Evening Star, a happy ending looms over that horizon which we have not quite reached (and may arrival be long postponed!), but which the romance assures us will be the Garden of Eden approached where west turns into east.
It appears that I have already begun advancing my hypothesis about the romance’s essential literary qualities: the sequence of exotic settings, the emphasis of external physical challenge over internal moral struggle, the almost self-renewing episodic démesure, the promise of idyllic peace at last. I may well append to the concluding trait the detail for which romance is most famed, and which indeed has come to monopolize the word: sexual fulfillment. While the rambling narrative’s ultimate end may in fact be catastrophic for vast numbers of people—may involve a flood or earthquake or volcanic eruption or alien invasion which decimates humanity—we are often comforted by seeing two sympathetic characters of opposing gender, having laboriously discovered themselves to be soulmates, finish safely and (to all appearances) permanently united on an island, a space station, or whatever other locus can reproduce Eden in almost chaotic circumstances.
None of this sounds very realistic—which is, of course, a perennial criticism of the genre. Dante portrays Paolo and Francesca as reading a chivalric romance about Lancelot and Guinevere just before, seduced by the tale’s charm, they ruinously commit adultery. The royal affair which broke up the Round Table was a calamity, too—but the guilty partners were both said to have survived the ensuing slaughter and to have ended their days as sincere penitents. Dante hints that the “real life” lovers (killed in flagrante delicto by the wronged husband) may have been duped both about the sweets of transgression and about the luxury of negotiating a pardon. Life tends to end far more abruptly and untidily than a story.
Yet when Dante and Virgil have a chance to interview the footloose Ulysses in Inferno’s Canto 26, each of them stumbles over the other, with Virgil at last—rather comically, I think—enjoining Dante to let him do the talking. The condemned Ulysses does indeed spin a gripping yarn: he and his aging crew very nearly gate-crash the island of Purgatory , no less. Here is the only canto of the Inferno to be closed by the words of a sinner suffering eternal punishment: Ulysses has rendered his small bardic audience literally speechless. “You were not born to lead the lives of brutes,” he reports himself as having exhorted his crew. Romances frequently display this same quality of drawing veils, of raising far-off shores. The “quest” for knowledge is a romantic undertaking.
If Dante the author is hinting (through Dante the character’s enthrallment) that such intellectual magnetism is also a seductive danger—and Homer’s Sirens, recall, sing of knowledge (Od. 12.184-191)—then we of the modern world, on the other hand, are less apt to be alarmed. We have drawn so many veils, in the meantime—we have cured so many diseases by “tampering with nature”! Look at it this way, however, since my hypothesis has now blossomed into a series of caveats corresponding to each literary trait: fascination with the unknown can prevent or retard one from dealing with the known, at the very least. Those who must be ever drawing veils are very likely to spend too little of their lives maintaining whatever has been unveiled. (Maybe we would have fewer diseases, to begin with, if we were less invested in the technology of cracking nature’s codes.) In other words, the romantic habit of advancing to the next horizon, even if we dismiss the notion of forbidden knowledge like well-enlightened minds, undermines the moral virtue of persistence in routine tasks. It turns robust workers into daydreamers, healthy farmers into anemic wielders of pipettes.
In these criticisms (if such they be—for Dante would not deny that his rambling comedy has several romantic qualities), we foresee subsequent reservations about novels and, indeed, about television. The misgivings are typically two-pronged: they relate to content and to style (with Paolo and Francesca having been seduced by explicit behavior and the wayfaring pair of Canto 26 by Ulysses’ questing mysticism). We are all aware of what travail the novel would endure as it probed closer and closer to the “sordid” realities of un-heroic mortals struggling to keep their heads above a hostile world’s turbulent waters. Les Liaisons Dangéreuses and Madame Bovary both sparked controversy, despite the care taken by Laclos and Flaubert to “punish misbehavior” severely by the final page. Of course, these romans were scarcely “romantic” in any sense of the word. Keats’s Eve of Saint Agnes, though versified, fits the bill much better—and Blackwood’s Magazine famously decried this “pretty piece of paganism” in terms that shortened Keats’s life (if one may believe Shelley’s highly romantic account of events). Extra-marital sex had never looked so good: Lancelot and Guinevere, in dozens of medieval literary attempts, couldn’t touch Keats’s bedside manner. Of the caresses and tickles with which television and the movies have proceeded to better Keats in this regard, I shall write not a word.
Frankly, criticism of licentious content as a spur to vice in the audience’s impressionable youth has always struck me as rather lame. One might as well argue that epic has brainwashed generations of young men to hurl themselves into senseless wars. The protest against style seems to garner more cogent evidence. Several studies have concluded that television, far from inciting violence or sexual appetite, actually renders viewers more passive by siphoning off their vital energies as they lie wallowing on a couch. It may indeed be (though I have not seen any study advance such a suggestion) that endlessly watching others make love with Geisha/Casanova-like expertise has rendered contemporary youth rather bashful about mimicking the “masters”, so that their overtures are increasingly barbarous (date rape, pre-sedation of the “lover”, sodomy) or increasingly withdrawn from the objective event (pornography, sexual “playthings”, homosexuality).
To contemplate a behavior cast in impossibly exotic or exciting circumstances, and to contemplate thus it in a sequential narrative wherein it is renewed over and over, strikes me as hypnotic, a formula for inducing paralysis. A sober Immanuel Kant had precisely the same reservations. The reading of romances, he lamented, “gives one the appearance of a dreamer and makes him inept in company, since he blindly follows the free flight of an imagination unordered by any use of reason.”2 Walter Scott’s Waverly (at the beginning, let ironists note, of a vibrantly romantic novel) charged romance-reading with having captivated too many of his youthful hours and bred into him just such a tendency to whimsical abstraction. With the reader’s indulgence, I might also cite my own experience as a very withdrawn youth in the days when television still aired a great many classic movies on “The Late Show” and when well-scripted serials (many now being recycled on cable) were flourishing. Had I enjoyed no such surrogate for social interaction, I would have been forced—few and unpromising though the opportunities for friendship were in my environment—to confront what may be the most difficult part of a young man’s education. As it was, I embraced the romantic fantasy that things would eventually arrange themselves—that, at worst, worthy people would press to be around me once I managed to transplant myself to a foreign setting. The hope was absurd, and the wasted time irrecoverable.
To be sure, a certain amount of “over the horizon” thinking is necessary for any thoughtful human being’s survival. If living with one foot in an imaginary world is folly, then living with both feet in immediate reality can lead one either to despair or (perhaps worse) to a tawdry conformity. Cervantes seems to have coded this observation into his classic burlesque of the chivalric romance. As uproariously inept as Don Quixote is at every quotidian undertaking, those who deride or exploit him usually cannot resist being pulled into his fantasy, however shallowly, and charmed by it, however briefly. Yet one can hope too much, and for the wrong things. Hope can truly make of one a fool. To my mind, the romance’s greatest moral shortcoming is its tendency to project protagonists as grossly, often comically overmatched ingénues toiling against forces quite beyond their comprehension. Such figures are by no means passive—but they might as well be, for all the progress their energetic endeavor makes toward the desired end. Indeed, the lover is often further distanced from his beloved or the castaway from his home or the explorer from his Shangri-La by his most vigorous efforts to draw closer. Medieval romance at least presents such groping as morally informative. For instance, Sir Gawain’s acceptance of the pseudo-magical green sash, though turning out to be the one false step he makes in his quest, also finally introduces him to a profound truth about human fallibility.
Otherwise, especially in their most broadly popular forms (e.g., blockbuster movies), romances purvey the notion that impulsive behavior is winsome, and that some power benign to fair-haired young people will escort a very small elite of bungling, bright-eyed darlings through meteor showers and laser blasts to kisses, riches, and peace. The severance from social and moral responsibility—from sober deliberation, from distress over the wide world’s plight, from retrospective assessment of errors committed—is very close to the pathology of narcissism.
III . The Evolution of Romance
But I anticipate myself. The romance most certainly traveled a higher road before ending up in the trough of Harlequin novels and box-office thrillers where silver-screen heart-throbs are chased by evil CIA agents, hungry tyrannosaurs, and the Sirian first onslaught in clever Earthling disguise. We could do worse than to take a cue from Dante and go back to the Odyssey. Homer plainly did not compose the first romance—yet the Odyssey’s tendencies in that direction are remarkable, especially when the epic is viewed beside its august predecessor in mythic time, the Iliad. (Later romanciers would mine the Odyssey for subject matter: Parthenius summarizes a lost work in his Peri Erôtikôn Pathématôn about the handsome traveler’s affair with Polymela, daughter of the wind-king Aeolus.) Odysseus’s tale is one of wandering far and wide, as the poet declares in the opening lines. Even the Land of the Dead appears on the crafty Ithacan’s itinerary. The Trojan War, in contrast, is intensely concentrated into a single space and, as Homer relates it, a single narrow range of time. The participants in that struggle battle with their own passions, all unknowingly, at least as much as with an armed adversary; the menaces encountered by Odysseus are so distinctly extrinsic as often to grow bizarre, forcing the hero into disguises, off-the-cuff fabrications, and unrehearsed roles. Of course, Odysseus is no casually marauding pirate. He has a long-term objective, and at its apex awaits—with exemplary patience—the one woman in the wide world to whom he has pledged his soul. Try as we might, we cannot turn Achilles’ quarrel with Agamemnon into an outraged lover’s fury. The girl-prize whom the Maecenean high-king commandeers was originally carried off by Achilles after that worthy had slaughtered her brothers, her father, and indirectly (as Briseis reveals when weeping over Patroclus’s body—tears she would have shed for no other Greek) her mother. There is no romance on either side of Troy ’s great walls—only tragic destiny, wherein such resigned determination as Hector manifests is merely one more thread on the Fates’ spindle.
Odysseus’s steadfast will to prevail is another matter. Though it sometimes misguides him (the excursion into Polyphemus’s isle was entirely unnecessary, and the captain’s downplaying of his disposable forces probably emboldened the ogre), fixity of purpose nevertheless brings him at last to a happy ending. As if to emphasize that he is saved more by faith than works (and I shall write later of Christianity’s romantic aspects), Homer strews Odysseus’s route with the invincible denizens of nightmares, endowing the tale with yet another romantic quality. Neither Hector nor Ajax nor Achilles himself could prevail against the loathsome Scylla, let alone an Underworld gorgon. Naturally, they do not have to do so, since their epic pits man against foreknown destiny rather than against inconceivable horror. Yet through a gamut of such horrors, Odysseus makes his way. In this limited sense, the Odyssey is a comedy.
Herein is implied a further romantic tendency of the Odyssey which strikes me as most significant. Odysseus is extremely lucky. The traditionally breast-beating, sky-defying sublimity of the tragic demigod-hero has yielded to the low-profile, time-biding cleverness of the folk hero. Sir Lancelot has become Robin Hood (complete with a proficiency in that least heroic, churlishly remote weapon, the bow). The Odyssey’s many ties to folklore have long been recognized.3 I must not overstate the degree of scholarly agreement about such issues, for several scholars (e.g., G. S. Kirk) deny that any meaningful distinction whatever exists between myth and folklore. For those of us who are less persnickety, however, the Odyssey appears to have a stunning affinity (always in implied contrast to its alter ego, the Iliad) with the common man’s virtues. The hero is even disguised as a beggar for about half of the narrated adventure. On those few occasions when he fights hand to hand, the outcome is not brilliant: the raid of the Cicones ends in massive loss. To be sure, the arrogant suitors are made to pay for their crimes with blood—but in this fray, we see no berserker’s mênis such as Achilles displayed in avenging the death of Patroclus. The unmasked hero, rather, coolly sends shaft after shaft into a band of disordered young profligates who have apparently evaded military duty all their lives. And he is aided by Athena, that lucky sprite who flits hither and yon in the epic like a genie or a leprechaun. The luck is with him, as the Irish would say—not the Ulster kings who heard tales about Cú Chulainn, but the humble farmers and fishermen of Kerry and Clare. Odysseus would be their kind of hero.4
The obvious question ensues: what forces brought the Odyssey so much closer than the Iliad to the genre we style as romance? Was Homer striving to appeal to a different class of person in the post-Trojan epic—or was a completely different bard whom posterity would fuse into the Iliad’s legendary aoidos leaving clues to his identity within his altogether novel view of heroism? Nothing of the kind is plausible. Oral poetry (and poetry written in the oral style—the category to which the Homeric epics properly belong) does not radically transform itself to express an independent-minded poet’s worldview or to flatter an unusually motivated audience’s prejudices. The content is fairly fixed, not only in formulaic phrases but also in type-scenes feeding into universally familiar myths.5 The remarkably distinct thrust of the two Homeric epics can only result from evolutionary forces beyond the reach of authorial intent. In other words, the early inklings of romance in the Odyssey must be something of an accident.
Here is my theory of how such a happy accident would have occurred. (Virtually none of the following conjectures is “demonstrable”, as that scholarly plurality would say which prefers the mystique of obscurity to reasonable speculation; for scholarship, too can be a romance, the questing hero swathed far above the masses in his Mount Sinai ’s tingling clouds of witness.) The evidence is really quite transparent, though it does not consist of historical artifacts. Most myths are tragic. This is so because most mythic heroes are demigods, greater than the rest of humanity but not quite divine, and hence prone to vie with Olympians in a rivalry which always leaves them second best. The peaks and chasms formed by their falling, smoking bodies have bequeathed to subsequent generations of puny mortals a set of clear parameters demarcating life’s uttermost possibilities. If the hero died trying to cross the desert or halt the cataract, then the desert is not to be crossed nor the cataract to be stanched. Heroes go too far: their sobering lesson defines for posterity exactly where “too far” begins.
The central myth behind Odysseus, however, is different. There is ample reason to conjecture that Odysseus was at one stage a “psychopomp”, or a minor divinity who leads the spirits of the dead to the Underworld. Hermes, the spirit-guide who prevailed in mainstream Greek mythology, is Odysseus’s grandfather by some accounts (not Homer’s: but, of course, it is Hermes who frees his mortal semblance from Calypso and had earlier saved him from Circe’s designs). The very name of Odysseus—“the hated one”—is stunningly ill-suited to a Greek king, and its explanation in Od. 19 falls singularly flat. So strange a handle would far better fit a figure associated with death, whose terrors the Greeks tended to pad with circumlocutions (e.g., Pluto—“The Wealthy One”—for Hades). Then, too, we have that most unlikely of kingdoms, Ithaca , located on the wrong side of Greece for prosperity and civilization and peculiarly isolated by the sea. Islands, of course, are often either entries to the Underworld or are themselves otherworldly settings, like the Irish Tír na-nÓg, the Land of the Young. In Odyssey 11, the overt spirit world is reached by crossing the River Ocean .
Not that the other islands visited by Odysseus (I count ten, excluding Hades and including the Sirens’ shores, the fig tree above Charybdis, and Scheria) do not themselves suggest the Other World and also, for the most part, offer strong hints of subterranean darkness (either by cave or by placement in the far north): all of these adventures, I would suppose, were at one time stories of The Hated One’s shuffling to Dead Land before poets made of them narrative beads to string upon a romantic necklace. One can easily manipulate such tales in such a manner, you see, because the guide/traveler returns to daylight. Most heroes would perish if they strained at the border between life and death (e.g., Peirithoüs, and also Theseus according to Virgil). Even the greatest of heroes, like Herakles and the Sumerian Gilgamesh, can only make the journey once. For a figure who can flit back and forth across this dread boundary, however, an abundance of exotic outings lies waiting for some raconteur to collect—and each excursion, unlike other mythic cycles, has a happy ending. The hero emerges from his dark hole, not so much to fight another day (for his deathly passage enforces a chilling passivity upon him, often attended by speechlessness, paralysis, or loss of identity), but to pry once more into things never before witnessed by human eye.
The original eye to make such a mythic trip, far from being human, was probably not even a demigod’s, but the Sun’s—that Eye which Seeth All. The very earliest version of the Other World Journey is the solar myth about how the setting sun passes from west to east through a tunnel, renewing its energies dormantly as night rules the heavens. (The poet Stesichorus talks about a cup in which the Sun rides Ocean’s currents from west to east; but landlocked communities prefer a tunnel account such as we glimpse when Gilgamesh penetrates the subterranean Garden of the Sun.) Optimism is news, indeed, in any mythic tradition. A narrative assurance that the sun would indeed rise again tomorrow—and, at a slightly more complex level, that it would return after the winter solstice—is bound to have been about the first formal expression of hope in any primitive society, for uncertainty over the very source of life’s warmth and power would be crippling. We may say, then, without fear of contradiction by any but the most antagonistic sticklers for “historical proof”, that the sun caused romance to grow.
Less metaphorically, I am simply avering that sequences involving a high-risk outing followed by a safe return home—the solar cycle and, based on its pattern, the psychopomp’s activities—would naturally become a magnet for other optimistic narratives as culture “advanced”: that is, as more intricate cares were substituted for those of bare survival. No, the Odyssey poet was not a budding Marxist who had discovered the nobility of the beggar—but he was a member of a society which was beginning to travel more and observe strange alternative ways and habits in the world. Even the Iliad implies as much. Whatever historical war may have been fought in Troy ’s vicinity surely resulted from commercial rivalry: the Greek alphabet itself had been imported from Phoenicia , and its earliest samples are clay tablets recording inventories. Literacy, we often forget, is technology, and its arrival creates revolution. Homer’s world was both the dusk of prehistoric antiquity and the dawn of humane civilization. Achilles, in an immense and grossly underreported irony, actually rejects conventional heroism, opting instead for a long life of obscurity (with its promise of rich internal rewards) by the time Patroclus’s death sucks him impulsively back into the fray. The rambling tale of Odysseus’s homecoming records the other side of this revolution. His cultural arrogance shaken by a wide exposure to the world, his priority of values reshuffled when tradition’s orderly assignment of privileges is shattered, this king born and bred has become a conduit, not of social upheaval (for Ithaca will revert to the old ways under her old ruler), but simply of new thoughts. The stories he has brought back with his gifts and plunder will confirm the old order up and down, but will also undermine it simply by being new. For listeners, even in perceiving that their ancestral categories can dryly navigate broader horizons, will be more confident than ever about testing new waters: the winds are out of the bag.
As much as is not romantic about the Odyssey (and there is a great deal: the story’s motions are essentially backward-turning rather than trail-blazing—viz. Penelope), the romance does indeed seem to supply hope of this kind in unsettled times. Strange terrain must be crossed, but safe return is possible. Though what knowledge tradition offers of the world will be shockingly surpassed by the unpredictable traps and ghouls of a topsy-turvy No Man’s Land, no revised set of rules will really work any better. Trust in your lucky stars… and when low clouds block Polaris, hunker down and hang on.
IV. The Romance’s Protean Changes in Antiquity
By no means do I have the space to trace in detail every moment of specific change in the romance’s evolution. I wish above all to supply sufficient context that I may proceed to analyze the genre’s encrypted messages in our own troubled era, when it has run true to form by being false to its earlier forms. The nearest epic approach to romance I know of after the Odyssey which doesn’t quite reach that happy shore is Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, an account in dactylic hexameters (about 6000 of them) of Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece. It is tempting to read this third-century (B.C.) yarn as a parody, for the story of heroic daring dissolves halfway through in the young Medea’s tears as she pines and swoons for the handsome Greek stranger. Of course, when a genre is disintegrating in response to changing times, posterity often mistakes its last gasps for parodies. I think it far more likely that Apollonius, endowed with the thorough literacy which ponders every verse and leads irresistibly to a more close-up quality of detail, zoomed in altogether too close (to use a cinematic metaphor) and could not recover a properly epic indifference to “fine sentiment”.6 The Latin Argonauticon of Valerius Flaccus (written about the time of the Vesuvius eruption) has few of the same problems, but only because its author sacrificed his new powers of magnification on mythological trivia—with an epithet of recondite allusion in every other line—rather than on intimate emotions.
Apollonius, then, had taken the next big step by foregrounding (perhaps without fully intending to) an intimate, star-crossed love between two picturesque young people in a cutthroat world virtually exploding with outlandish menace. Like the Odyssey’s Homer, he had seized upon the Other World Journey as his narrative’s skeleton (for the Colchis of Greek myth, with its Cerberus-like dragon, far-northern location, sun-descendents, and golden prize pulsates with infernal imagery), Unlike Homer, however, Apollonius had recognized in the Other World princess a ready-made prototype for the lonely man’s imprisoned dream-bride (unless we see a hint of this figure in the lovely Nausicaä). A trek through the darkest wilderness simply to observe disembodied ghouls and bright ingots shed by the sleeping sun had become a blueprint for how an alienated youth might snatch away the one soul in the universe able to understand and soothe his isolation. Individualism was looming.
Yet the works of late antiquity which scholars have agreed to call romances are, if anything, less finely literate (e.g., less endowed with minute representation of sentiment) and more popular in style than the Argonautica. Indeed, the adverb romanice seems to have been coined somewhat after the birth of Christ to describe new prose fictions being composed “as they speak at Rome ”: i.e., in vernacular dialects and with little regard for literary language. Properly speaking, classical antiquity has left us with about a dozen fairly intact examples of the romance, most of them belonging to the Hellenistic variety (that is, produced in the Western Mediterranean by transplanted Greeks). The best-known of these is probably Daphnis and Chloe—about whose author, Longus, virtually nothing is known, in contrast, other than that he lived in the second century A.D. and inhabited one of the Greek-influenced areas of southern Italy. The tale is typically rambling and fraught with unpredictable incident.7 Though one would not have thought a shepherd’s life particularly exposed to sudden danger, the naïve young lovers of the title are delayed from blissful union by such irksome interruptions as pirates raiding inland and spoiled city-slickers on a hunting expedition. Once he has returned from being kidnapped, Daphnis (the male) must also be instructed in copulative technique by the local femme fatale; for the lovers’ delayed embraces prove frustratingly awkward when finally given their moment, and the coastal grasslands of Lesbos are not supplied with bawdy houses or abundant in lewd orgies.
The fusion of pastoral setting with erotic mysteries is puzzling, especially since it occurs over and over in ancient romances. One might note that even the two divine charmers whose bed Homer’s Odysseus reluctantly shares—Circe and Calypso—inhabit remote settings and are tinged (heavily, in Circe’s case) with sorcery. Perhaps the traveler to the Other World is required to assure his homecoming through ritual intercourse with a fertility goddess—so that he becomes, in a way, part of the vegetal world’s cycle of death and rebirth.8 (Gilgamesh joins with the wine-goddess Siduri in some translations of his epic, and the Irish Cú Chulainn clearly mates with Fand in the Serglige Con Culainn.) The association of knowledge with sexual experience has a far broader history than Genesis—and the Garden of Eden, for that matter, is the pristine pastoral setting.
I would suggest, however, that romanciers like Longus were playing to a more cogent impulse than the desire to follow an ancient paradigm. If the mythic traveler’s sex act was once a passe-partout in the land of wonders, making him one with nature’s cycles, it would now have become something more like an initiation into the “right, honest, true” practices with which self-abhorring urban cultures begin to associate nature. City and country are most definitely involved in a dynamic struggle as the romance develops. Perhaps the struggle’s polarities are not quite as simple as corruption and innocence… or perhaps they are, if we can understand erotic exploration as innocent. Certainly uninhibited nature is generous in scenes of fertile mating. The contrast, then, would arise between two uncorrupted hearts achieving a climactic physical union as nature intended them to do and a lost soul seeking its mate amid the city’s numerous squalid, mercenary, often truncated or unnatural couplings. (The citified sot Gnatho, enlisted into the visiting master’s entourage, attempts to rape Daphnis at one point.) Romance, as Dante knew, is not abstinent: those who find their princess only to place her on a cold pedestal will lose her, as Ariosto’s Orlando—in his infinite folly—does Angelica. In this context, nature seems to import the “wholesome” knowledge of living as one was created to live, while the city strains one’s being with perversion and unsatisfying experimentation. The rigid (sometimes enforced) male abstinence found in certain Eastern religious cults like that of the Bona Dea, after all, and in early Christian monasticism is a response to urban decadence, not a hearkening back to ancient practice.
I suspect, then, that one of the needs served by popular romance (today no less than in antiquity) is to sustain a symbolic view of sexual experience as wholesome, fulfilling, and even mystical—to link that experience, in short, with the discovery of one’s true being. In the proto-literate world, communal ties and ancestral traditions have been shattered even for the yet illiterate. Life is growing more commercial and itinerant, more urban, more eclectic with imported tastes. The result for virtually everyone is a new degree of deracination and consequent loneliness, with plenty of room to worry about a future whose typical course has never been mapped. People naturally look for security in the smallest possible units under such unstable circumstances. The village of yesteryear becomes a tiny circle of true friends—and the expressive intimacy of the sexual relationship helps to bestow a unique character upon it. The man united with his true love has a kind of nuclear resiliency which can survive all the external pressures of transplantation, expatriation, unemployment, and social indifference—at least until children arrive (a wrinkle in paradise never addressed by the romance).
One must mention Apuleius’s Metamorphosis (or Golden Ass) along about now, much the most celebrated of late antiquity’s Latin romances. To be sure, Apuleius twists and strains the Latin language with a truly vernacular vengeance, so that the earnest student may be less repelled by what the author says than by how he says it. There is plenty to roil delicate sensibilities, however. The sorceress Pamphile’s maid Fotis gives Lucius a very thorough initiation in love-making; if that part of his education had been lacking before, he emerges from her arms enlightened.9 Yet Fotis is far less conversant with her mistress’s ointments and potions, one of which Lucius is aching to try out. Having famously transformed himself into an ass—a real ass, with hooves and long ears—he is led off before the mistress’s return by what we would call today home-invaders. They overcome their shock at finding a donkey in the house to pile the dumb beast with loot, then take it with them to a remote cave which serves as their hideout. We are back among pirates again, and in the countryside: a victimized countryside, be it noted, whose criminal population has overflowed from the city and generally returns to the city for its depredations.
Lucius eventually recovers his form after numerous coarsely comic adventures (and even more narratives overheard by his long asinine ears). His “rebirth” merges with an initiation into the cult of Isis, a variety of mysticism apparently preached by Apuleius throughout North Africa in his charismatic images and dialect. So the elements of romance thus far identified are largely represented: the excursive plot, the harrowing peripeties succeeding one another unpredictably, the repeated lucky escapes by a tooth’s skin, the exploration of an underworld’s (now the criminal underworld’s) mysteries, and the initiation into greater knowledge which overlaps or is catalyzed by sexual experience. Yet the proportions do not always seem quite right—or not right at all. Particularly unseated from its position of importance in other romances is the quest for sexual fulfillment. Lucius’s “initiation” by Fotis comes early and easy, nor is his physical satisfaction accompanied by any of a more spiritual nature. Once transformed into a quadruped, he is irrelevant to the tale’s subsequent amorous adventures—for the most part. (Having escaped back to “civilization”, he is rented nightly by a lovely, bored housewife to play the bull to her Pasiphae, in his own words.) The space which Daphnis and Chloe—and even the Argonautica—had devoted to love talk here appears dedicated to portraying social chaos. Bravos plunder, rape, and murder without warning along Main Street, sometimes in broad daylight; while Main Street’s most respectable façades, from the opposite direction, conceal fraud, larceny, depravity, conspiracy, and homicide. It is a frightful picture. The protagonist’s great good fortune consists, not in his having found and won the queen of his soul, but in his having survived. Indeed, had Lucius not been “assified”, his throat would have been slit several times over. Even in his deepest misery, he turns out lucky.
It is such luck, I think, which disqualifies the work as a parody—for the Metamorphosis does seem to abuse the romance’s earnest naiveté with a certain deliberation even as the Argonautica might be thought to undermine the epic’s stately progress by design. Once again, I would argue that any such identification must be mistaken. A parodist would expose more systematically such favorite absurdities of the genre as abrupt and shocking occurrences, equally abrupt and improbable reprieves, and the perfect recompense of love as the surrounding world melts down. Apuleius has no clearly designated targets of this sort. Instead, he seems to me most sincerely interested in and convinced of a certain mystical patronage’s reality. He seems to worship luck. This may well be styled the next step, the final step, of the romance (for the next narrative stage would have to be the safe navigation of a planetary calamity—which would be no more a narrative, no more possessed of comprehensible progression, than safely traversing a mine field under machine-gun fire). The soul-mate solution to the literate world’s rootlessness depends, after all, on another person: the dependency is greatly reduced from traditional levels, but not yet minimal. The least dependency of all is to be self-contained: not an option for the popular romance, because such asceticism requires a concentration of which very few human beings are capable. The Stoics indeed recommended perfect independence of contingency (only ta proairetika, “things affected by moral choice”, were allowed within the scope of their concern) throughout these very years of late antiquity. Many, like Zeno, were having to live under political subjugation; some, like Epictetus, had actually been enslaved. Early Christians often found themselves in similar predicaments, and their writings can be almost indistinguishable from Stoic treatises. Few romantic heroes were equally tested by fortune.
But the sublime remove of the true Stoic sage, to repeat, must have been a wonder of the world, if it ever existed at all—as rare as true Christian martyrdom. The popular romance did not plumb the human soul: it sought an outward solution to an outward problem, maintaining one foot (with that maddening agility characteristic of the genre) in the oral mindset.10 The minimal solution to a chaotic social environment in a narrative form which declines psychological dissection is magic: a rabbit’s foot, an indentured genie, a mystic wand or ring, a tutelary spirit… that sort of thing. The tormented traveler can keep it in his pocket, under his tongue, or perhaps in thin air within whispering distance. (That a prominent element of early Christendom tried to reduce the faith to just such proportions is chronicled by the church’s struggle with Gnosticism.) Apuleius has chosen this expedient—so much more sure, really, than a mortal lover, who may die or be kidnapped or simply prove fickle, no matter how celestial her kisses.
The efficacy of the metaphysical inside-track, of course, is best emphasized by putting the initiate (or the candidate for initiation, in this case) through the most staccato, cacophonous chain of disasters imaginable: a torturous kind of hazing well known to initiation ceremonies. Hence the romance as a genre is not really the target when poor Lucius’s ordeal quickly grows quite unbelievable. The sword’s temper is being forged, rather, by blow after blow of hammer after hammer. Luck that can endure such a test can endure anything. The excess looks silly, no doubt—and we are the freer to laugh once we have identified the romantic universe (an easy assessment to make when the victimized protagonist is also the story’s narrator). Romances, like Dante’s romantic epic, are comedies: they are infused with the assurance that everything will be all right for a small group of central characters, even when the group turns out to consist of one. The flip side of this “bending but unbroken” durability in the protagonist is vast social ruin. To run the “test”, villages must be put to the torch, virgin brides violated, children massacred, populations decimated. The romance, at least in this terminal degree (and the reader may have remarked that I am describing a great many contemporary films)—the romance, that is, of the magically endowed survivor—does not in the slightest concern itself with collateral damage. It invites that debauch of narcissism which I mentioned earlier. The consumer of such last-ditch fictions presumably draws satisfaction from finding that survival in a slaughterhouse is, after all, possible with the right patronage… but the protégé’s neighbors must expire in their own gore to establish the slaughterhouse setting.
It should be mentioned that the evolution I have proposed does not advance in a rigid manner which leaves each previous species of the genus fossilized. A tendency for epic to die out as the genuine romance thrives is certainly manifest, but noble mastodons or strange cross-breeds can linger for quite some while. The dominant force driving the process is literacy; and, naturally, the literate phenomenon always divides into “high” and “low” literacy—into patient, reflective self-analysis and “pulp fiction” mass-produced for those who are probably read to, or who at best read for diversion rather than for enlightenment. Ironically, that great dissecter of souls, Epictetus, left something on paper to posterity only because disciples scribbled down his utterances. The same was true (in chronological order) of Confucius, Socrates, and Jesus, all of whom tapped the energies for introspection unleashed by literacy. Theirs is the exception that proves the rule: literacy revealed a universally human terrain within each individual, its glories dwarfing such superficial features as physical appearance and social class to insignificance. The guides to this terrain, following its humanitarian imperative, rejected literate transmission of the message as too exclusive; for the road to the heart’s crypt, once the vault is laboriously unsealed, leads one straight out upon the full human universe. Now here was a romance worth telling, and attending!
Eventually, I believe, the psychological novel (Dostoevsky, James, Martin du Gard) becomes this confessional romance, the story of a prophet forced to write instead of speak. Apuleius, as we have seen, is not that prophet. His charism is a Gnostic blessing that allows him to land on his feet even when they have hooves: he is the prophet of good luck and secret revelation—a “eudemonist”, in Aristotelian terms. The epic, tied down by hexameters but also—and far more importantly—by social responsibility, inevitably provides the only adequate venue for studying the effects of “close-up, slowed-down” analysis upon inherited myths. The results are predictably schizophrenic. They suggest that an abiding, at last fatal tension besets all literate epics, because the romance (with which all literate epic must be imbued) is both intimate and comic. Romantic travelers survive their journey, and even achieve that for which they were questing. Their success is self-centered, however, and the epic will have none of this narcissism. The epic hero quests for social harmony—for the recovery of Eden, for heaven on earth—and nothing less will fulfill him. Perhaps the most fatal part of so quixotic an undertaking is not the impossibility of transforming society’s appearance as the impossibility of attaining inner fulfillment in so doing. The wide travels which adorn the inauguration of a literate era quite often, in fact, produce a rather naïve optimism about the abundance of happy places on earth (or happier, at least, than home: Montaigne even detected paradise among New World cannibals as Europe’s printing presses hit their stride). What the introspective explorer of literate sensibilities will never be able to find is a faithful expression of his soul’s newly probed depths in streets full of well-fed merchants and laughing children. Eating the lotus may cause him to forget his nostalgia, but it cannot awaken him to a sense of higher accomplishment.
Such is precisely the enigma which Vergil posed himself (quite unwittingly) in attempting to write a “foundation epic”—i.e., a romantic mission into the unknown—with a sympathetic but relatively benighted pawn of destiny leading the quest in the person of Aeneas. The Aeneid, of course, is both Iliad and Odyssey, in reverse order. First the hero sails uncharted seas, then he fights pitched battles with a doughty enemy. Yet in neither venture is Aeneas simply circling back to the status quo, as were Homer’s heroes. True to the romance, he is blazing new trails. He leaves home forever when he launches his ships from the Troad, having no very clear idea at all of where he is to end his journey; while the war in Latium, far from vindicating traditional values and silencing a perennial adversary, is fought on alien turf in response to a visionary injunction. Aeneas and his tribe could scarcely be more unsure of their future if they were so many revelers-turned-donkey—yet they are not permitted the luxury of holding onto their seats and trusting that good luck will blow them to a fair shore. The epic figure’s heroism would be nullified if it could not find active, assertive expression (the reason, presumably, why Other World adventures, wherein the traveler assumes the passivity of the dead, are never the sole content of great epics). So Aeneas rouses himself and struggles to fight the good fight in the depths of an opaque incomprehension, which is reckoned to him as piety.
In the end, he succeeds… but he fails, as well. As an individual human being, his integrity lies hopelessly sundered on the shores of Libya, where the forsaken Dido is buried. To affirm his superior commitment to the gods, as my quondam professor Karl Galinsky has done often and with distinction, really has no moral validity. It is the view, to be sure, which contemporary Romans would have taken of Aeneas’s dilemma: duty first—and the highest duty is to the state.11 The intimacy with which the romance represents the protagonist’s inner struggles, however, forces the problem into terms where duty’s balance shifts. Dido grows so dependent upon Aeneas that she cannot face life without him. The dependency incurs an obligation, whatever one may think of the “marriage” engineered by Juno and Venus (and Vergil is outspokenly clear about its nullity: cf. Aen. 4.172). To cast the equation, then, as pleasure versus holy obligation is to be duplicitous: the formula might work in a fully Homeric epic, but here we know too well that the hero recognizes the expectations he has created in his vulnerable lover. Thanks to the romance’s sentimental magnification, we see that the balance’s two sides contain an existing and publicly assumed (if only implicit) promise to a worthy, honorable individual versus, in the other plate, a powerfully sensed obligation to found a future political state with a different queen on the throne. The alternative, be it extolled by ever so many nocturnal visits from Mercury, is unsuited to a morally based imperative. It is a call to worldly power, and the material majesty predicted of this power highlights rather than conceals the selfish ends it serves (for to serve the ambitions of many along with one’s own scarcely constitutes self-sacrifice, especially when defenseless bystanders must pay along the way). On one side, the looming prospect of fame, empire, wealth, and a long line of grateful heirs: on the other, a standing agreement, though entered unintentionally, to keep faith with a particular human being. Morally, the call is not even close.12
Romance sabotaged Aeneas’s heroism—and sabotaged Vergil’s epic. Though Galinsky is surely right that the Aeneid succeeded as a piece of propaganda, it remains a literary contradiction. That is, for those sufficiently distant in time from the Aeneid’s origins to evaluate the human sentiments put into play rather than merely the epic’s much-published expectations, Aeneas is uncomfortably near to the traitor which the Middle Ages would make of him.13 Vergil’s Romans saw sacrifice to the fatherland because that is what they had anticipated, what was in the water they drank: they read the epic envelope, not the romantic lines. If only Dido had more resembled Homer’s Circe or Calypso than Apollonius’s Medea… if only she had plotted to destroy Aeneas before he had neutralized her plans with sex rather than after he had betrayed their bed! But then the work would have been infinitely less engaging: it would have been one of those roller-coaster rides of popular romance, where the lucky traveler dodges one chasm or claw after another, rather than an inward exploration of the hero. The “comedy” of triumph would have been low, cartoonish. The cost of this epic triumph, in contrast, is and must be the hero’s personal tragedy—his moral collapse. Aeneas bears his people upon his shoulders to unprecedented heights—and pays for it with his soul: a new kind of epic heroism, indeed! The only solace Vergil can offer is an Elysium where, eventually, the soul forgets everything and is reborn with a completely new identity.
The philosophers had it right: beatitude lies in controlling your outlook, in limiting your will to what falls immediately under its sway and in resigning yourself to all else. Such spiritual concentration is even better than a lucky star (which may burn out as inexplicably as it flared up). It is certainly better than the epic scenario of making one’s inner peace dependent upon obliterating a hostile race or resettling the tribe. But then, the pre-literate originators of epic knew no inner peace as such: peace consisted of a secure standing in the community. The romance, even in its “lower”, more popular forms, had permanently cut the protagonist adrift from this complete identification with the tribe. Though he might frivolously be seeking a girl or a pot of gold instead of, more philosophically, his soul’s good, the traveler now sought the girl or the gold for himself, not for his ethnos. The success and glory of the tribe, assuming it could somehow hold together in an increasingly fragmented world, now had nothing very specific to say about the happiness of its members.
The one sort of narrative which proved able—sometimes—to bridge the gap between communal triumph and personal fulfillment was, ironically, history. The irony, of course, lies in history’s reputation for simply telling facts. Yet it is a “fact” that histories, like romances, descended straight from epic, and that written histories began to appear just slightly earlier than the full-blown romance. The earliest were traveler’s tales. Herodotus collected accounts far and wide of the curious ways in which non-Hellenes did things, rather as if he were Odysseus stopping on one shore after another and noting exotic behaviors with cool reserve. Yet the climax of the collection was Iliadic, or an Iliad with the tables turned: the defense of Greek civilization, this time, from invading Eastern barbarians. The gate to a wide world had been thrown open, perhaps unhinged; but paradoxically and reassuringly, the Old World order affirmed its stability when strangers wandered in. This is the romantic formula in rather fine detail.
Most of what is missing from the formula was supplied by Xenophon. The Anabasis turns out to have a romantic protagonist: not the flamboyant young Cyrus, who dies in Book One, or his tyrannical brother Artaxerxes, who remains virtually invisible… but the author himself—Xenophon—who slowly but surely emerges into prominence as the Greek mercenaries, their mission aborted, must find their way back home through unfamiliar, hostile lands. First-person narration appears more frequently as Xenophon feels compelled to offer his advice and leadership in numerous crises. He is increasingly sought out, as well, since his talent for keeping a cool head becomes widely recognized. The Anabasis, all unwittingly and in the winning style of a genuinely humble young man, ends up telling a story of self-discovery even as it maps out how thousands of Greek lives were saved from barbarian machinations. The tribe is preserved—but the story-teller steals the show as he backs into center-stage. For good measure, one might argue, a savage but comparatively treachery-free countryside is played off against the murderous duplicity of “truces” and “favors” in the vicinity of Babylon. As Xenophon leads his Greeks farther into the wilderness, he personally comes of age.14
We know that Alexander was encouraged in his imperial designs by reading of how easily Xenophon’s Greeks routed far greater numbers of barbaroi. We also know that Julius Caesar emulated the Anabasis in composing accounts of his own military exploits for propagandistic purposes (and minus the first-person style, which tended to erode the hero’s godly mystique). To what extent were these greatest names of antiquity seduced by the sheer charm of Xenophon’s romance—the elusive promise of filling a vast inner void with the glories of external conquest? If they were indeed so stirred, then they had misread the Anabasis, whose author conquers nothing but his own fears. The account which Arrian has left us of Alexander’s thunderbolt anabasis (or “journey inland”) all the way to India ends in gloom—in an awe, very nearly, of glory’s bitter dregs. The historians of ancient Rome who chronicled Caesar’s life and many another—Sallust, Livy, Suetonius, Tacitus—almost universally embraced the sober theme that, in the case of most mortals whose example is yet retained in memory, “the body has served pleasure while the soul has served only as a burden” (Sallust, Bellum Catilinae 2.8). Histories tend to be tragic (Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian Wars was the archetype here): they embody a benighted humanity, led by a few charismatic figures, which has no inkling of destiny’s dark clouds gathering overhead. The difference is that, in these “literate Iliads”, destiny is no longer inscrutable to its retrospective analyst, only to its wretched victims. The historian deciphers what was once opaque mystery into moral forces ravaging the populace’s judgment just as ghastly plagues occasionally ravage its rank-and-file body. Most histories stay put. They chronicle events in a particular place at a particular time. Under such conditions, the human animal cannot escape thorough dissection, and his collective motives invariably turn out to be infected with lethal contagion.
The “romantic historian”, then, must somehow liberate himself from place even as Homer’s Odysseus escapes the man-crushing limits of the Trojan War. When the historian himself cannot embark upon an adventure, as did Xenophon (and as would Marco Polo), he may at least allow his eye to wander—beyond his state, beyond his time, perhaps beyond his planet. (For some chroniclers must become “natural historians” to escape the present’s loathsome circumstances: nature offers hope even—or especially, it may be—without human participants.) The important thing in such history-writing is to get away: the impulse is distinctly escapist, as with a Harlequin romance today. No less a pessimist than Tacitus (“The best day after a bad ruler is the first,” he once wrote [Histories 4.42.35]) found ample cause to eulogize the “barbarian” Germans in his treatise on that tribe, just as Montaigne—as I noted parenthetically above—found New World cannibals not at all unappetizing.
The utopian vein of historiography, whether it admits itself to be fiction or dangerously strays, instead, into “reporting of facts”, has remained a popular variety of romance.15 To be sure, it often lacks the central character whose turbulent vagaries the reader rides out from a comfortable couch; yet the exoticism is still there, as is the dynamic assumption that abandoning one’s own urban jungle for Arcadia’s fresh air might put one in touch with suppressed but essential parts of one’s psyche. Hope revives when historians write of otherness—ancient historians, and perhaps certain modern ones. Hope is the spice of life to a society whose fragmentation has destroyed the savor of its own past. Hope is spice, and spices come from far-off places. “Everything unknown,” wrote the wry Tacitus elsewhere, “acquires a grand aura”—perhaps his most celebrated bon mot (Agricola 30). We forget that he placed these words in the mouth of a “barbarian” decrying Rome’s imperial ambitions. The barbarian and his followers would lose the ensuing battle.
V. The Emergence of Modern Forms
I reiterate that I do not intend in this small space an adequate historical overview of the romance in all its transformations. The range of classical precedents is already impressive—but certainly not inclusive. One romantic variety which I wish to recognize before lurching forward to our own time is the medieval roman, a plant of truly extraordinary blossoms. The West has witnessed no other situation quite like the one prevailing in larger medieval communities (nor, I advance with slightly less confidence, has the East). Literacy survived—and a very high grade of literacy, fed by the most sophisticated authors of ancient Rome (Cicero, Vergil [now Virgil], Pliny, Ovid) and by Christianity’s ethic of personal responsibility. Yet the cultural underpinnings of literacy had almost entirely receded from the scene. Commercial trade and travel slowed to a trickle as roads and waterways became the range of sanguinary predators. People worked the land again as their distant ancestors had done, protected—once again—by clannish groups of professional warriors. Cultivators and warriors, neither party literate or in need of literacy… anthropologist Georges Dumézil insists that the third plank of all pre-modern societies is the priests. In medieval Europe, of course, literacy had been entrusted to the clergy: Latin literacy, to be exact. The distinction is crucial, for if a vernacular literacy which could no longer prove its worth had competed with the spoken language early on, it would likely have perished before the second millennium. That the literate language was not the spoken language (except within monasteries, and there mostly for liturgy) effectively insulated literate habits of grammar and logic from the corrosive forces of oral parataxis.16 Even as most members of the community were hoeing cold clods or strengthening walls against Vandals and Vikings, a significant minority was preserving the rich documentation once generated by concerns about the individual soul.
In other words, the cultural environment of the early Middle Ages had reverted largely to oral-traditional levels, especially in extreme northwestern Europe. At other points untouched by Rome, the word “reversion” would hardly be appropriate. No Roman soldier ever set foot on Irish soil; and ogham, a code of vertically ordered slashes through which hunters or scouts could leave messages on stones or trees, proved adequate to immediate native needs. It was the emissaries of the Church who introduced a literate habit to the fringes of Irish culture, just as the Church had kept the embers of literacy from entirely dying in Roman Gaul and Britain. In these places, the literate presence was quite artificial, quite engineered; yet it was tolerated, and even embraced. I know of no one, frankly, who has ever proposed this defense of Christianity as a “belief system” independent of cultural conditioning: I mean, that the emphasis on the individual’s internal life remained attractive, if only the notion could be presented, even among clannish medieval yeomen whose outlook was essentially Homeric.17
If such literacy was somewhat artificial, its collaboration with local narratives to create romance was even more so. Monastic scribes were apparently content to record their favorite tales in the vernacular in more or less artless style early on. Many of the stories about the ancient Irish hero Cú Chulainn, for instance, seem almost telegraphic except for snatches of recollected verse (and Old Irish verse is itself notoriously hermetic). The scribe’s manner may well stand in the same relationship to a professional bard’s as shorthand does to fluid prose. When medieval transcribers do begin to import something to the local narratives they commemorate, it is likely to be rather meaningless—even otiose and vexing—detail. The Welsh recorder of Rhonabwy’s Dream actually taunts his oral competition at the end of a short but florid (and wholly unexciting) account by advertising his triumph at squeezing in descriptive minutiae.
On the other hand, the ethic which literate Christian clerics imported into local culture would eventually revolutionize the romance. As centuries passed, court poets learned enough writing (some of them in monasteries) to lighten the onerous load of having to memorize an enormous volume of matter. That they in fact read from manuscripts to their audiences does not gibe with most portrayals we have of their performances; but a read-over of the material beforehand would certainly improve the performance, while a text (begged, borrowed, or stolen) of another’s best tale would provide them the luxury of supplementing their repertoire entirely at their convenience. The critical ingredient in this ever more complex literary stew is the following. In the rather tedious act of transcribing, poets had leisure to reflect upon the plot evolving before them; and profiting from such invitations to second thought, the best of them apparently discovered ways of inserting significant detail. They began to allegorize. The hero’s journey to a strange land was now, in addition to (or even more than) a physical adventure, a profound examination of personal motives and duties. The Lady who tempts Sir Gawain is not only a sultry Other World Queen, but also the embodiment of Concupiscence (with a capital “c”)—and even (as that transformed figure of pagan regeneration, the Green Knight, reveals) a window upon Gawain’s own mortal fears. (Note that the Queen’s mythic role has been halved with the sorceress Morgan to relieve her enticements of dark overtones.) Similarly, the Middle Irish Eachtra Mhelóra borrows virtually nothing from Ariosto except the notion of a female warrior (itself perhaps of Celtic origin); yet the tale is immensely more subtle than that earlier heroic chronicle of Other World travel and narcosis, the Serglige Con Culainn. Melóra is able to redeem her betrothed from the dead through exemplary devotion and endurance, not through mere brute strength or the patronage of lucky spirits. Magical talismans there are aplenty. Yet these now function more as objective rewards for rare virtue than as arbitrarily hidden pass-keys conferring mystical powers upon the first-comer.
I cannot imagine a better strategy for satisfying the most valid moral objections to the romance. The genre appears to be shamelessly escapist, to nourish a passive hope in life-altering dei ex machina, to make listeners or readers impatient with their own time and place, to disengage the audience from social travail requiring conscientious participation. Thanks to the Christian influence, tiresome or trivial realities suddenly came into their own. They were no longer sidestepped in the tradition of excursive story-telling so much as stripped of their blandness. The stake of keeping a tedious promise was now as weighty as heaven or hell: the very tedium of an oft-repeated duty might now be the dread potion of an evil sorcerer. By extending reality infinitely far beyond perceptible reality, medieval Christianity caused quotidian actions to throw dramatic shadows. An extraordinary depth was admitted into the life of Everyman.
At its best, the medieval romance becomes a kind of parable, seeming to treat of faraway lands and incredible occurrences but in fact—those who have ears, let them hear!—detailing the pitfalls of life’s daily grind. The correlation of fantastical things to things mundane was not made complete, naturally: the Arthurian verse narratives of Chrétien de Troyes, say, or their analogues in Welsh prose are not mere parables, but complex social commentaries and (for their day) tautly suspenseful yarns. One could delight in such stories without so much as suspecting that they had any moral relevance to one’s own circumstances. A more “profitable” dimension, however, was fully accessible to the thoughtful as it had never been in Daphnis and Chloe or The Golden Ass, where any special “wisdom” was of the Gnostic sort involved in passwords and secret signs—not the wisdom of true self-discovery. The Erec/Gereint protagonist of the Chrétien/Mabinogion tale could truly be any dynamic young man assessing life’s labyrinth. This particular hero wins his lady-love early on—is not awarded her by fate, but wins her by force of arms and strength of character. He then has to decide between a full-time devotion to the charms of married life and a reconciling of these duties with others to superiors and dependents. His choice turns out to lurch from one extreme to the other, so that—in a young man’s excessive punctiliousness—he overshoots the balanced option after mildly discrediting himself with the uxorious one. Most of us can understand such miscalculation: most of us have indeed been guilty of it, in terms appropriate to a life without gold and damask. It is nothing less than the struggle of a right-minded youth to show discretion without forgetting solemn obligation.
I believe that the novel at its zenith (and the reader will recognize what a leap in time I now take) continues in what I would loosely call a “spiritual” tradition. What appears to be outward turning, perhaps even escapism, is in fact a search of the soul. The journey up the Congo River in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is little more than the backdrop of a grim revelation concerning the human being’s taste for power and capacity for self-delusion. The backdrop is crucial, of course: the absence of Europe’s insulating hypocrisy makes the drawing of thick veils possible. Yet the exoticism in many of Conrad’s masterpieces (e.g., Lord Jim and Victory) has this same deceptive quality. It promises the adventure of a dime-novel—the thrill so familiar from the pens of John Buchan, Ryder Haggard, and Jack London—only to confront us with the same hard facts about human nature which drive men (especially men) to the far shores of the earth. Most “psychological” works of fiction, to be sure, offer a less sensational surface. I mentioned Roger Martin du Gard earlier. An eventual Nobel laureate, this French novelist labored for decades to chronicle the rising and falling fortunes of the Thibault family, and mostly of two brothers. Why such dedication? Because—precisely because—in this nuclear group was represented all the forces gnawing away at European civilization: an atavistic religious faith at least as preoccupied with social privilege as with salvation, a positivist confidence in scientific progress and the sufficiency of material comfort, a commitment to social upheaval in the naïve hope that only tradition stood in the way of earthly paradise… father, older son, and younger son. Martin du Gard could scarcely have represented the toxicity of this mix (let alone have attracted so many readers) simply by describing it in the kind of prophecy historians sometimes allow themselves. His characters, on the other hand, are not only people whom we do not know, but people whom we may deem to bear little resemblance to us. We are free to read them as actors in a tightly circumscribed social history if we wish: if our ears are stopped, we are free not to listen. For the novelist—the serious novelist—is perhaps best described as a prophet who never utters a generality, unlike the historian: to the reader falls the thrilling chore of discerning how deeply each particular word echoes over the wide world.
As I write about Conrad and his generation, it seems to me that I am eulogizing the distant dead—that the authors of the earlier twentieth century are indeed closer to Chrétien and the Gawain poet in some important way than to James Bond and Star Wars. This sentiment is not entirely fair. The romantic “low road” of Victoria’s reign may have enjoyed more altitude than its counterpart in our time—but James Bond, to be sure, is little more than an oversexed Richard Hannay. Nevertheless, the trend in all forms of romance along the twentieth century’s downward slope has been toward less and less psychological depth, character development, and meaningful introspection. (For that matter, the promotion of sexual pleasure is itself an index of shallower internal life.) Now that two global wars have depleted Europe’s cultural resources and exhausted her will to survive, a people better and more widely educated than any in the world’s history remains trembling collectively like a shell-shock victim who chain-smokes and counts flies on the window sill. The New World, whose cultural grounding never went very deep, has filled the gap of leisure (which perhaps gauges a civilization better than any other single measurement) with marvelous mechanized toys… and here we sit. So the post-Conradian watershed, I think, is real, and extremity of our present position beyond dispute.
(continued in next issue)
1 From Ancient Fiction: The Novel in the Greco-Roman World (Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1984), 3. The brief citation later in this paragraph immediately follows.
2 My translation from p. 208 in Anthropologie in Pragmatischer Hinsicht, vol. 7 of Kants Werke (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1968), 117-333.
3 See especially Denys Page, The Homeric Odyssey (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1955).
4 There was, in fact, a medieval “translation” of the Odyssey into Irish: the Merugud Uilix (Homecoming of Ulysses). The scribe’s knowledge of Homer seems both second-hand and very partial, and the exotic adventures of Od. 9-12 have indeed all but vanished.
5 German scholars have been especially occupied with studying the type-scene (the feast, arming for battle, etc.) Bernard Fenik is perhaps the best known of this group.
6 This is more or less the criticism which the Argonautica drew from ancient scholiasts: i.e., that it grossly violates that brevity urged by the neoteric poet Callimachus. From the other direction (yet tending toward the same focal point), Longinus is highly critical of the work in comparison to Homer’s much longer epics for lacking solemnity: see Peri Hypsous 199v.
7 Some indication of the tale’s expected audience is given by the fantastical shift of both lovers’ having been foundlings, put out to nurse under docile goats, and of their being sumptuously acknowledged by noble progenitors at the end; also of their being “taught letters and as many other things as were fitting for a rustic life” (1.8). Shepherds, of course, must know how to carve their beloved’s initials into tree trunks!
8 As Walter Burkert observes, “That sexual elements play a role in mystery initiations is virtually certain, but there is hardly any clear evidence” (Greek Religion [Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1985], 108). Passage to another state—that is, the mythic sequence in question here—plainly provides the skeleton of most such initiations; so, unfortunately, the volunteering of explanatory detail in such matters by the ancients would be strictly taboo. Reinhold Merkelbach (in his book of 1962, Roman und Mysterium in der Antike) and others have even ventured to assert—with overweening confidence—that Hellenistic romance was uniformly encrypted to serve the cult of Isis .
9 The names are all probably meant to be suggestive. A Roman would have associated Lucius with lux, “light”, and Fotis with the “street” word for copulation. Pamphile literally means “all-loving” in Greek—with likely ironic undertones, of course.
10 Walter Ong has aptly labeled the content of oral narratives “agonistic” and “situational”, stressing the non-literate mind’s tendency to project internal struggles onto the outside world and to conceptualize ideas in concrete rather than abstract form. See Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), 43-57.
11 E.g., Cicero writes in De Re Publica 6.9.13 of Scipio’s having been assured in his famous dream that “nothing is more important to that supreme god who rules the universe” than service to the state—a typically Roman adjustment of Stoicism.
12 Let me be clear. I do not contend that phrasing Aeneas’s dilemma in these Kantian terms, wherein the least self-interested course is the best, replicates what very many ancient Romans would have thought about the situation. I maintain that this is the true way to view the problem, which Vergil has posed in such exquisitely literate terms (i.e., detailed and alert to motive) that the likely crudity of his typical reader in perceiving its moral nuances is irrelevant. Vergil’s gods—the most visible point of collision between oral-traditional and literate thinking—stand at the crux of the epic’s incoherence. They may well be mere allegories, at least in some scenes, for the workings of the human psyche (cf. Gordon Williams, Technique and Ideas in the Aeneid [New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1983]); yet that leaves us with two equally unacceptable alternatives. If Jupiter is a trope for Aeneas’s drive to enrich his people and Juno and Venus an allegorizing of Dido’s shame warring with her desire, then enrichment of the clan does not trump sparing a lonely heart’s ruin (and Dido does, of course, promise the whole clan a comfortable living). If, on the other hand, Jupiter objectifies some metaphysical power seeking to shape earthly history by fashioning human participation (as seems more likely), then Vergil’s supreme god is a man-eater, an inscrutable taskmaster straight out of oral tradition who dictates duties as a spoiled child cries out demands. Vergil plainly represents Jupiter, on the contrary, as the source of serenity and inner peace. (The Stoic Balbus, in Cicero ’s De Natura Deorum 2.25.64, explains the epithet in Jupiter’s attribute, iuvans pater, by arguing that “to assist everyone is grander and clearly more welcome than to possess vast powers”.) Hence, I repeat, the given quantities in this epic-romantic equation cannot be morally balanced.
I might add that the Aeneid may well be the preeminent example of scholarly ineptitude in literary questions. Scholars can tell us quite accurately how the work was read by its own age; they cannot tell us how it should be read according to the intrinsic criteria of its created universe—a strictly aesthetic judgment. That the author was at odds with his contemporaries on this very subject is surely indicated by his having left instructions for the Aeneid to be burned upon his death!
13 The medieval French adaptation of the Aeneid, the Roman d’Eneas, is characteristically hard on the hero for his desertion of Dido. For instance, the redactor does not choose to reproduce Mercury’s second embassy to Aeneas (thus depriving the hero’s sudden departure of a major justification) or Dido’s attempt to capture and burn the Trojan fleet (thus removing from the queen a tinge of destructive lunacy).
14 By the way, the Thracian king Seuthes offers Xenophon his daughter in marriage, but nothing seems to come of this: high adventure, indeed, when you forget to claim your princess-prize!
15 Marxist historiography is a fascinating hybrid of “Iliadic” and “Odyssean” histories. Like Livy or Tacitus, the Marxist historian broods over the decadence of human events—yet the “subtext” is always the certainty that Troy will eventually burn and Odysseus set out on his wide-ranging tour of Arcadia . Reports that cannibals are likely to be living in rural caves never come under inspection, for the journey is ever being postponed as one more stone is loosed from Troy ’s walls.
16 That is, oral thought proceeds laterally by heaping together “similar” ideas the precise nature of whose association remains unexamined. See Ong (op. cit.),37-38, on orality’s “additive rather than subordinative” style.
17 It is a commonplace in Catholic criticism of the modern world to pillory “individualism”, so I assume that such critics would wince to see the fundamental Christian contribution to medieval cultural life summarized as sustaining the worth of the individual. Yet so it was. Only in its darkest moments of interbreeding with local heathen customs has any arm of the Church ever valued tribal practice over the salvation of individual souls. I would wish that many contemporary critics might re-think their wording. The narcissism of the current scene stands in the same relation to individualism as a fever does to a healthy sweat.
Modernity and the Machine:
Viewpoints on Technology and Society
Mark Wegierski is an independent journalist based in Toronto, Canada, who has regularly contributed to this journal for several years, especially on subjects involving the economy, “pop” culture, and perspectives of the future.
Listed below are some salient positions of different thinkers and reflective persons (excluding inchoate popular and mass-politicians’ attitudes) in regard to technology in the Twentieth Century, generally divided into Right, Center, and Left (R-C-L) modes. It is important to note that a person’s explicitly held ideology is not all-determining for his or her outlook on technological and ecological matters.
By “technology” is meant the “advanced” or modern technology that arose out of the triumph of a scientific spirit in the West beginning in the 17th century A.D. Modern technology can be divided into “early industrial”, “late industrial”, and “postindustrial” (or “electronic”) phases. The process of expansion of new processes, devices, and substances is geometric. There seems to be no sign of “technological decadence” (decline in technological advance) in contemporary society.
Technology is ultimately derived from scientific theory. The “ideology” of science, scientific positivism, has had far less impact on society than scientific theory as a whole, while the practical impact of scientific theory in creating new technological processes, devices, and substances has been far less again than the over-all impact of these new technological processes, devices, and substances themselves on society as a whole.
Technology can refer to both the “skill” necessary to produce and use technological objects, and the objects themselves, thus describing a body of knowledge, processes, and results.
Main Attitudes Possible to World History
• Teleology: the belief that world-history is going in a generally “upward”, positive direction
• Eternal Recurrence: the belief in the endless cyclicity of world history
• “Negative Teleology”: the belief that world history is going in a generally “downward”, negative direction
• Indeterminism: the belief that world history is radically open to changes in direction; no “set” direction to history conditioned by previous developments.
Main Approaches Possible to Technology and History
• Pre-technological Approaches (Generally Out of Context Today)
Refers to pre-industrial societies where mass machine- or electronic-based technology was not an autonomous or existing factor. In such societies, attitudes to the explosion of such technology could probably not be formulated by thinkers, since it did not yet exist. (This statement assumes the uniqueness of the modern technological outburst out of the West, as well as the somewhat privileged position of serious commentary of those writing in a now-existing context that was non-existent before.)
• Non-technological Approaches (Unreflective About Technology)
Although the commentator is living in the twentieth century, no serious consideration of the effects of current technology on society is made, owing to the “old-fashioned” nature of the views held.
R: (e.g., Russell Kirk) “pure reactionaries”—teleological, indeterminist, or eternal recurrence, but without reference to technology (most Rightists probably actually fall under this category).
C: “old-fashioned liberals” who ignore technology—teleology of “freedom”, or indeterminist.
L: what is called today “vulgar” Marxism—teleology of “classless society”, without paying attention to technological context (especially necessity for technical specialization in industrial societies, which probably explodes Marx’s brief conceptualization of classless society, i.e. “fish in the morning, criticize literature in the afternoon”).
• Technology as Generally "Good" (Very Optimistic)
R: in his pre-World War II thinking, Ernst Jünger (German Right-wing theorist) sees technology as invariably “authoritarian” and disciplining—therefore supports it unqualifiedly; note also Futurism (Marinetti)—the obsession with speed, adopted by Italian Fascism. The early Jünger would argue that technology is invariably “militaristic” and “anti-humanistic” and would therefore support it, to sweep away “sentimental rubbish” and “humanism”. Teleological, optimistic; assumes that technology = discipline.
C: Many liberals and Left-liberals of various stripes see technological development as invariably liberating (assumes that technology = freedom); complete support for scientific and technological development, consumerism, effective melding of man and machine (e.g., computers, cars, and popular science-fiction imagery): teleological, optimistic.
L: Some old-style Marxists embraced technology fully, as the essential vehicle for the achievement of the classless society (e.g. producerism, “the war for production”, Stakhanovism, “engineers of souls”); teleological, optimistic.
• Technology as Basically “Value Neutral” (Rather Optimistic)
Under contemporary (or another) system, technology has negative consequences, but under a different (or contemporary) political system it would be used (or is being used) positively; belief in the absolute primacy of society or ideology or human values in the social/historical process
R: Forward-looking nationalists and so-called “postmodern” Right enthusiastically seek to integrate technology within national and religious traditions—probable ultimate goal is “feudal values plus high-technology”. Some fictional examples which could be used to illustrate the end-result of this possible synthesis are Dune (Frank Herbert’s far-future epic of heroic intragalactic struggle focussed on the desert-planet Arrakis), Chung-kuo (David Wingrove’s epic series about a future Oriental-ruled Earth), and—to a certain extent—George Lucas’ Star Wars movie trilogy wavering between teleology, eternal recurrence, and indeterminism.
C: Liberals of all stripes and some Left-liberals generally support ongoing technological development, with some variations in the proposed intensity of ongoing social reforms designed to deal with problems caused by technology (problems which can, generally speaking, be solved—meliorism and reformism); teleological or indeterminist
L: Postmodern Left and some Left-liberals seek to radically build classless, truly egalitarian society, where technology would be used for humanity, not against it (believe that such an evolution is possible); teleological or indeterminist
• Technology as Generally “Bad” But Possibly Amenable to Human Control (Rather Pessimistic)
Viewing technology as sometimes “value-neutral” and sometimes as generally “bad”.
R: Pessimistic variant of “postmodern” Right—have little hope for the future, but continue their efforts nonetheless in the belief something can be salvaged; believe somewhat more in eternal recurrence than in “negative teleology” (seriously question indeterminism). See technology, liberalism, Left-liberalism, and capitalism as intertwined “late modern” system destructive of all genuine cultural particularities and human identities.
C: Very pessimistic liberals (they have to be extremely pessimistic to fit in this category, as liberalism is generally optimistic)—have little hope for the future, but continue their efforts nonetheless (do not generally believe that most problems can be solved); wavering between teleology and “negative teleology”; generally believe technology to be “fascistic” or tending to release irrational impulses or greed (as in consumerism).
L-Neo-Marxist: Technology generally seen as “fascistic”; giving up hope in classless, truly egalitarian society—“everywhere they are in chains”; wavering between teleology and “negative teleology”.
L-Ecological: Technology generally seen as “fascistic”; desire to return to simpler and more natural existence; commune movements; deep-ecology; environmentalism; “green” trends; generally pessimistic—wavering between teleology and “negative teleology”.
• Technology as Invariably “Bad” and Virtually Unamenable to Human Control: (Very Pessimistic)
R: Heidegger sees technology as leading almost invariably to the dystopia of “the universal, homogenous world-state” (in Jacques Ellul’s and George Parkin Grant’s phrase), eliminating cultural particularities and all genuine human identities; escape by humankind from technology or reconciliation of humankind and technology is all but impossible; “negative teleology” of technological advance; conservative response: existentialism—“tend your own garden”, look after “the little things” (i.e., particularities).
No Center position because no liberals can be this radical and pessimistic.
L-Radical Ecology: Technology invariably seen as “fascistic”; desire to return to simpler and more natural existence; commune movements; deep-ecology; environmentalism; “green” trends; very radical—all life on Earth is probably doomed unless the so-called “human infestation” or “cancer of humanity” or “human virus” radically changes its destructive ways. Some would advocate extreme interventions to reduce human population and consumption-habits. Strongly “anti-speciesist”: human life is considered not inherently more valuable than that of any other species; “negative teleology” of technological advance; sometimes carry out a radical response, so-called “direct action” (called “eco-terrorism” by their opponents).
(Postscript) Interpreting the Millennium: The Dilemma of Hypermodernity
The following is a brief summary of the author’s essay, “The Dilemma of Hypermodernity,” published in This World: Religion and Public Life (Culture and Consumption), no. 31 (New Brunswick, USA and London, UK: Transaction Publishers, 2000), pp. 29-45.
PREMODERNITY: Spirit of Humanity (Gemeinschaft: Community; Spiritual; Organic)
Central Dialectic of Premodernity: God and Humanity
MODERNITY: Spirit of Technology (Gesellschaft: “Society”; Material; Artificial)
Central Dialectic of Modernity: Humanity (which implicitly includes God) and Technology
SYNTHESIS (NEGATION OF THE NEGATION):
POSTMODERNITY: Humanity + Technology
re-rootedness in reflective particularity
(THE NEGATION EXTENDED)
HYPERMODERNITY: Technology Triumphant
(THE NEGATION TAKEN TO ITS EXTREME)
HYPERMODERNITY possibly leading to EXTINCTION of Humanity:
(i) nuclear war
(ii) pollution/ecological disasters
(iii) biological/medical/genetic engineering disasters
(iv) nanotechnology virus/plague
(v) through decadence and enervation of human life, if the so-called “unlimited energy source” (e.g., fusion), is ever found, but with humans beings unable to set any limits on its use
(A SUDDEN DIALECTICAL SHIFT)
APOCALYPSE possibly leading to POST-MODERNITY:
A combination of massive disasters (possibly including nuclear and biological warfare, or simply the catastrophic results of the exhaustion of the ecosystems of the planet) shell-shocks humanity into embracing a new paradigm, saving humanity from total extinction. The new society is saner, greener, calmer, etc. Many of humanity’s religious traditions speak of a “burning at the end of time”, after which a “redeemed era” commences. Perhaps this is a foreshadowing in religious imagery of what might actually await humankind.
And Deliver Us from English
Mark Notzon received his Ph.D. from Indiana University in 1981, and is the author of Noise of Reason: A Study of the Art of John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester (1981). The preceding essay belongs to work in progress. Dr. Notzon has been teaching abroad since 1986, and currently teaches at the Chelsea International Academy in Kathmandu, Nepal : he may be reached at .
“… a torn Remnant of Sub-History, unwitness’d”
Thomas Pynchon—“Mason and Dixon”
The circumstances of travel more than the destination itself, often beclouded by the voyager’s desires, determine the quality of a sojourn in the developing world. This is true for the occasional tourist, and even more so for those whose time abroad has allowed them to learn the local language and cultivate a common sense for navigating through the unfamiliar waters of an uncommon culture. This sense is as fallible as it is invaluable. The territory does not do the bidding of the map, however well the latter is drawn according to skill and memory, or however much one depends upon the power of money.
An ancient Javanese proverb has it that “life is a pause on a journey towards a cup of tea,” a bit of local wisdom that may have been distilled from generations suffering a myriad of minor or major catastrophes in a part of the world where daily endeavors are subject to the caprices of inclement seas, subterranean trembles, unreliable tools and transportation, and the vagrancies and derelictions of local officials. For most Javanese, this proverb is only a genial way of inculcating equanimity in such circumstances. For some few others, the proverb conceals a seed of spiritual truth in the guise of simple words.
Grahame Greene mentions in a later novel that the Western mind, nurtured in both doubt and faith, and exercised in the labyrinthine twists of protracted thought, finds the poetry and thought of the East, of which this proverb is a small example, complacent and childlike, if not childish.. Yet there is also that in Greene’s art which eludes the glance of seemingly omniscient disillusionment, and without which his art would be incomplete: divine grace, manifesting itself unanticipated and unforeseen, like a “thief in the night”. The pause may be as unexpected as the intruder, and may signal a life to be reconceived in a way hitherto unknown.
Such an interval occurred in 1994, during my second year in Indonesia, where I was a consultant on an educational development project in at Airlangga University in Surabaya, Java, Indonesia. Ostensibly the project was part of a long term plan to improve the public university system of Indonesia, funded by a private loan from the Asian Development Bank to the Indonesian Ministry of Education. This was during the halcyon days of the Southeast Asian Economic Boom, and the project was only one instance in the efflorescence of easy borrowing that would eventually lead to collapse some few years later; for the traditional dynamics of politics and finance in that part of the world dictated that funds only be sufficient to sustain the illusion of development, much like a Potemkin Village, while officials behind the scenes pocket their disproportionate share. Wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) being an indigenous and hallowed craft among the Indonesians, the project embodied the unwritten injunction that Indonesian life imitate Indonesian art.
I was nonetheless fortunate in being assigned to a department of English whose faculty were committed to teaching and had a lively interest in literature, or as much an interest as could be sustained on the pittance of a salary and other meager resources—this in a country whose only author of international repute was still under house arrest for running afoul of the Suharto regime in 1979. Encouraged by faculty support, I not only fulfilled my explicit duties of teaching advanced English to those ear-marked for scholarships abroad, but went beyond contractual boundaries by starting a drama club for students and organizing several symposia on literary topics, which were well-attended and attracted many from other universities in the area.
Fortune played no small role the marshalling of scarce resources. I had once been strapped for contemporary lyrical poetry—something for a presentation in the coming week—when a packet of long-delayed mail arrived containing a copy of the American Review of Poetry, wherein I found in a matter of minutes two fitting pieces by a Linda Gregg, whom I had not read before. On the Monday morning before the presentation, an Indonesian colleague was relating a weekend excursion that he and his wife had undertaken to a small mountain-resort town, where, he emphatically insisted that they had met an American woman by the same name. The next weekend, I went myself and found the poet and her ready Olivetti in lodgings above a restaurant owned by a Chinese family. Ms. Gregg had come to Indonesia on an advance from her publisher to begin work on a new volume of verse. She graciously emerged from her seclusion to give a poetry reading in Surabaya, the last event I was to organize, thus snatching a final grace beyond the reach of “applied linguistics”, that wing of the “educationist-administrative complex” which exports “edu-tainment”.
I had no prospects beyond the end of the project, and had expected to return to the States buoyant in spirit, but unemployed. The day before I was to take my last vacation in Indonesia—a week’s stay on the southern coast, with a stop in the city of Solo, the center of Javanese culture—a letter arrived from the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, West Africa, where I had served as Fulbright Lecturer in 1988-1990. The university asked me if I would accept a third Fulbright in their country, as they had difficulty in finding candidates who had demonstrated ability, not in teaching American culture or literature, but in surviving rigors of climate and culture with their demands on body and psyche, earning no few expatriates their tribal cicatrice. My fancy made much of the careerist potential: a route from Indonesia to a third Fulbright could just provide an academic position in the States, and I planned to send them an acceptance letter while on vacation.
I had previously traveled little in Indonesia, and my cultural learning did not extend beyond becoming functional in bahasa Indonesian, and in adapting myself to the ways of Surabaya and the university community. I knew almost nothing of the spiritual traditions of the Javanese, although the signs, colorful and bizarre, were part of daily surroundings and ambience. By spirituality, I do not mean orthodox Islam, the dominant faith of the archipelago, but the indigenous beliefs and practices, present and sometimes hidden, which originated in Java’s Hindu and Buddhist cultures antedating Islam, or going even further back to some remote period of the island’s animistic past. It was common to see locals splashing with salt water the walls of a new restaurant or other business enterprises to attract influences attuned to commercial success; or to find in the countryside the branches of a tree festooned with notes of supplication and petition soliciting the favorable attention of the genii loci. Newspapers and magazines routinely carried stories of spiritual obsession or possession, of hauntings by a pocong (the ghost of a corpse in shrouds wandering because of some fault in the burial ceremony), or of a tuyul (the ghost of a deceased child) tricked into thievery through the manipulations and greed of a disreputable dukun (shaman).
I regarded all of this with the more or less the received wisdom of my Western education, adopting the attitude of an ethnologist who had come only to observe or describe an alien human community whose members were unaware that their practices were, if not crippling superstition, then merely epiphenomenal in some way to other dynamics amenable to rational and scientific explanation (the ethnologist keeping the explanation, surely, to himself). At the same time, I understood many of these beliefs were companion to higher aesthetic manifestations which marked considerable cultural accomplishment, such as the Buddhist temple of Boroburdur or the Hindu temples of Prambanan, where the stone peaks of the candi would seem in the rays of evening sunlight to flicker and dissolve, as if their material substance were ultimately only an illusion.
In a small tourist restaurant in Solo, where I had arrived just that morning, an Englishman some years my senior, slight and gentle in demeanor, told me over coffee what had happened to him some twenty years before, on the Southern coast which I left the previous evening. He claimed he was walking on the shore well before sunrise when a radiant female figure with an equally ethereal retinue arose from the surf. Transfixed, he had agreed to do her bidding upon his death, while she would grant him access to material success in the remainder of his earthly life. Time now running short, he was quite anxious about the approaching deadline, and was in Solo, this time, to find a shaman with sway over local spirits who might persuade the goddess to release him from his vow, or at least reduce the penalty of servitude. He spoke in an even and convincing tone; for some reason, I had won his trust and he could thus disburden himself without fear of humiliating disclosure, as if the subject were excessive credit card debt or sexual indiscretion. I thanked him for his story and offered, at least, to pay for his cup of java, a spring from which he had certainly drunk deeply. I did not encounter him again.
I could only think, if all stories have some share of truth, that he was suffering from a delusion in which he was completely convinced, but which allowed him to live a normal life. He could have come under the domination of a seductive female archetype as found in the psychology of the Jungian school, an archetype which had become fixed to the mind’s eye, thus distorting all that he perceived. Or his narrative, through the agency of an internal, “Freudian” censor, might conceal the history of a cross-cultural marriage or romance which had gone seriously awry—not an uncommon experience for expatriates, male and female, in Indonesia.
On what was to be my last day in Solo, I had only planned to return to a fair on the grounds surrounding the Sultan’s palace and to take photographs of a chthonic spectacle which I had witnessed the day before: a young Indonesian woman traditionally clad, in a glass cage with several hundred pythons of various sizes, which she would pick up and hold, allowing them to wind around her arms and legs, her gestures done in rhythm to traditional music blaring from huge and faulty speakers which surrounded the enclosure. Having seen, in the antique market, this display rendered in the form of brass figurines, I wanted to document a live performance of a ritual signifying that Java, with its volcanoes and earthquakes, was indeed the land with a serpent underneath. But in the course of conversation with an Italian tourist while we were washing laundry by hand in the courtyard of the wisma (guest house), I changed my venue. At a concert of traditional music, she had met a group of Westerners who were not tourists, but on cultural visas, and were studying meditation under Ananda Suyono, a local luminary, whom she had heard lecture, having been invited by the students’ invitation. After hearing her description of the setting and what seemed the intellectual virtues and character of Suyono, I asked her for the address. As it was only a short walk from the guesthouse, and less fatiguing than would be wending a way through throngs in the heat of the dry season—and knowing, in any case, that the mistress of the serpents might not be there, such events Indonesia occurring on an unreliable and evanescent schedule—I decided that a visit to Shanti Loka (for that was the center’s name) would be a less demanding diversion for my last evening in Solo.
The entry to Shantih Loka was unassuming: a green door with a worn sign, sandwiched between a motorcycle repair shop and a small clothing boutique; but when I returned to my lodgings several hours later and found the response I was going to send accepting the Fulbright in West Africa, I quickly revisited it and drafted a gracious decline. And for the next seven years, in all the free time that I could find, I was a student at Shantih Loka.
What I came across in Solo was an esoteric school in which literature, philosophy, and art were studied in light of a student’s cognizance of being—a school of alchemy which did not promise “the philosopher’s stone”, a decoy to divert the selfish from attraction to the real work, but an askesis to develop knowledge and awareness of the human soul’s various energies (on the average, “a chaos of thought and passion all confused”) and to cultivate its relation to other souls and to worlds both visible and invisible. The school could be described an expression of Aldous Huxley’s philosophia perennialis, a consciousness “found among the traditional lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed form… [having] a place in every one of the higher religions.” Shakespeare, whom Suyono was fond of quoting, may have alluded to it: “For I have heard it said / There is an art which in their piedness shares / With great creating Nature” (The Winter’s Tale IV. iv. 86-88).
“Piedness”: we were a brindled crew of about twenty men and women—Indonesian, British, Australian, and European, some academics, others not—who formed a “floating quorum” to reside at the center intermittently and variously over the years, and who had some intimation that, while all moments are fugitive, all moments are not equal, and that the soul in its higher propensities desires to follow those that slip upwards and outside of time.
Various too, was the library, a polyglot collection sheltered in a small room furnished with well worn chairs, a couch, and an antique, incandescent ceiling lamp. On three walls of shelves that almost reached the ceiling were volumes on all the world’s major faiths and philosophies, sometimes arranged in a delightfully heterogeneous manner: Euclid’s Elements next to a volume of hymns in Welsh, those both leaning against a worn and well-worn copy of what might have been a first edition of Y. Evans-Wentz’s The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. The teaching’s of Plotinus were there, too; but, in the spoken transmission of Suyono, they would take on something of their Javanese or East Asian surroundings, as if fragments of the Roman’s philosophy had been winnowed and sifted, the fine gold powder gilding the Sanskrit characters of Patanjali—the lyre of Apollo having been restrung and retuned for local ears accustomed to a five-tone scale.
Ananda Suyono would sometimes enter the precinct, dressed in a traditional sarong and baju batik, ring a bell, and summon cups of tea for us while he would turn to peruse in silence the holdings himself, picking up a pile of loose manuscripts, fingering them carefully as if assaying, perhaps, residual moisture in the leaves from the remains of Prospero’s book, recently washed up on Javanese shores, and now under an archivist’s care. The library had one squeaking fan which kept the mosquitoes at bay after sunset but did not subdue the scent of burning beeswax which drifted in from the neighborhood’s batik artisans. When the climbing vines over the doorway blossomed, the sanctuary became a “bee-loud glade”.
I had started in 1997 the process to obtain a special visa that would allow me to study in residence at Shantih Loka for a continuous duration, to go into effect when Suyono and his wife had returned from a trip to India; but the Asian Economic Crisis disrupted these plans. Solo had suffered much from the riots and mayhem which followed, and Suyono wisely shifted his attention to helping those countrymen he could in Solo who had been traumatized by hardship, and he let go of his Western students, one by one, over the next couple of years. I last spoke to him in 2001 (before September 11)—a telephone conversation severed by a thunderstorm.
Although I had managed to find a position as a social studies teacher in a private high school in Jakarta, and was suitably employed for an expatriate in Indonesia, I had taken the job largely because it would support me and allow me to continue my studies in Solo. When the doors of Shanti Loka closed, the loss weighed heavily upon me; at the darkest, I thought I had come under the spell of an artful Spenserian black magician, as found in the The Faerie Queene, who so deftly blurred the boundary between truth and falsehood that I had been traduced or betrayed, and that I had given up the Fulbright in 1994 for what had turned out in Indonesia to have been “mere baubles”.
While I was in this troubled state, a British friend of mine, a free-lance journalist in Jakarta, passed on to me several American periodicals, including the New York Review of Books which contained Andrew Delbanco’s article, The Decline and Fall of Literature, on the state of Departments of English at colleges and universities in the United States: the woes and turmoils of this crisis were chronicled in books by a number of literary scholars who detailed what had happened to the study of literature from forces both within departments and without (such as socioeconomic, managerial, and digital influences). The printed utterances were timely, and they did give my thought some relief.
“How swift is the thief of mind!”—an apocryphal Buddhist sutra I recalled, at the close of reading; and how much swifter are those thieves, I thought, in the developed world, where privilege, material and technological advantage, and an overweening corporate model of “knowledge” education have so altered liberal and literate education with a momentum equal in its own way to a tsunami’s. A natural tidal wave, horrific when it affects humanity, at least originates from cycles of processes beyond our control. The gasping fish upon the strand? Literary-theorist adults stuttering “aporia” and younger generations suffering the fits and starts of Attention Deficit Disorder…. I had found myself in a tide-pool, a small one at that, and far from home, in committing myself to several years of study at Shantih Loka. But this sea-urchin (a creature remarkable for its hardiness and longevity) would gladly search out similar niches, and encourage others to do so; for what remains of the life of the mind, a kind of life increasingly notable for its absence, may depend on them, as universities provide evidence of less and less sanctuary.
In times of cultural decline, there is perhaps no limit upon the right effort that can be taken, individually or socially, to create an hiatus of well-being—an interruption of the approaching cultural eclipse which philosopher E. M. Cioran calls the “Unparalled”. But as Pythagoras might have said (with a wink and a smile), for transmigrating Souls who truly do so, there is no such thing as retirement.
 Dr. Fischer of Geneva, or The Bomb Party (1981).
 Ananta Pramoedya Tore (1925-2006). The house arrest followed torture and imprisonment. I had once bought in Singapore an English translation of his novel Bumi Amnesia (tr. The People of This Earth) and was gently advised by those at a café in Surabaya that I should not be reading the banned book in public.
 I confess that at that time I had thought more of the benefits of the Fulbright than I did of Africa itself; however, my earlier experience there, in retrospect, was initiatory to what unfolded in Indonesia ..
 A page from the Faustus which cuts, apparently, through all cultural differences. The goddess was the infamous Nyo Ro Ro Kidul, whose demesne stretches along the Javanese southern coast to Bali . She is the subject of much lore, and of many phenomena of both a benign and malevolent character, according to what aspect she would deign to manifest.
 The Perennial Philosophy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1945), p. vii.
 New York Review of Books, volume 46¸ Nov. 4, 1999 . I assume by now this article and the books reviewed are well known.
 Some Blind Alleys: A Letter. The original French essay appeared in La Tentation d’Exister (Paris: Gallimard, 1956). I quote the word as appears in the translation by John Howard, as I do not have access to a copy of the original.
The Ghost of Caesar’s Wife
Mr. Davies regularly contributes to Praesidium stories dealing with the intricacies of contemporary academe. Most of his compositions--but by no means all--range somewhat less far from empirical reality than this extraordinary tale.
Lisa had learned about hiding choice library books from the aunt who was her namesake, and who had pursued a doctorate (with eventual success) throughout most of the seventies and some of the eighties. Lise (as the aunt had re-christened herself upon entering the academic job market) had regaled her niece with many such stories long before the little one possessed sufficient years to understand them, and always with the moist-eyed nostalgia of some fat-and-unhappy divorcee recollecting her Homecoming Queen days. Not that Aunt Lise had ever been either fat, divorced, married, or Homecoming Queen… but the unhappiness was particularly in evidence by the contrast which any grad-school reminiscence invariably struck with her usual mood. Maybe it was just such gilded evidence, in fact—infinitely more than her mother’s nagging to “be somebody, like your aunt”—which had made Lisa shoot for grad school herself as early as sixth or seventh grade. When classmates had gossiped about their intended future or counselors had intimated that life might profit from being planned, Lisa had adopted the line, “I’m going to graduate school,” for as far back as she could recall, as if that destination were a terminal objective. Amazing, how often people had tended to shut up once the line was out—as if, perhaps, it were an answer to the career question. It had been so for Aunt Lise, somehow. More or less. An assistantship here, a lectureship there… a year’s contract later, then a tenure track, then… then a lot of feints and dodges of which Lisa had only the sketchiest notion, even now, and which Aunt Lise had only rarely discussed, ending in a job at the State Department of Education—a triumph lubricated by an influential grad-school chum. So grad school was a career, then: or its aftermath was, anyway. “What are you going to do with your life?” “Go to grad school… get my doctorate. And the rest.”
When fragments of such conversations percolated these days over Lisa’s long strides about campus, however, irony tartly seasoned the brew. She was not happy. Well, neither was Aunt Lise—but then, Lise had been happy at grad school. Maybe it was just the tides and the customs (or however that saying went). Maybe it was easier to be happy back in the seventies, when there was plenty of student aid, no AIDS, no terrorism (except… well, they only hijacked planes instead of blowing them up), no huge Gay movement siphoning off all the sensitive men and leaving only frat-boy keg-kings…. In general, it just seemed to her (and Aunt Lise’s stories had done nothing to refine the impression) that you could get a lot more traction out of refusing to turn the treadmill in those days. Old Lise… Lizzie the Lizard. Nowadays, some of Tin Lizzie’s favorite buzz-words—“capitalism”, “imperialism”, even “feminism” (God, she even said capital-e “Establishment” sometimes!)—felt like they belonged in one of those “dress-back” days that her private high school would use as a theme for a mixer (Elvises and Far Side glasses for the Fifties, Afros and bell-bottoms for the… whatever). Frankly, sometimes Lise’s generation sounded like a bunch of losers.
Who would want to sleep around with a bunch of guys, for instance? What would that accomplish, even if you made them all wrap themselves in plastic at the door? (They might as well: refrigerator bags were made for oozing, slimy leftovers.) What-na-hell kind of freedom was that? The guys just got all they ever dreamed of out of it, and what did women get? Why did Aunt Lise think that was such a great victory? It was bad enough to get robbed of your last penny—but to let somebody talk you out of your money, and then to come away smiling about how you bought lakefront property on Mars? Losers….
But, of course, it was Aunt Lise’s generation that ran the grad schools. At least in the departments like Interdisciplinary Studies. One of the nation’s only doctoral programs in Interdisciplinary Studies, and she had to land herself (at Aunt Lise’s instigation, with her blessing, and probably because of her string-pulling) right in the middle of it. What-na-hell was she going to do with a Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies? The brochures said she could teach History or Politics and Government or Literature or Foreign Language… so, yeah, be a friggin school marm. She sure wasn’t going to be any college professor like her worthy, esteemed mentors, because a) there were virtually no Interdisciplinary Studies programs to employ her, and b) college History departments would go for a Ph.D. in History. (Lisa had only lately been apprised of these hard facts by an older grad student concurrently job-hunting and finishing her dissertation: the perspective had knocked her inside-out.) Or maybe she could follow in Lise’s footsteps—get the taxpayers to support her handsomely for life while she churned out new regulations that made educating kids more impossible than ever.
Was that… anger creeping up her throat? Was she ready to uncork a burst of epithets in her sainted aunt’s direction?
She took her bearings beyond the graduate library’s main entrance and security gates. Not that she didn’t know that cavernous foyer well, the names of dead white guys (The Lizard’s phrase) written duskily in tile under a cornice to make spiders dizzy—not that she didn’t know even those forgotten names like the first scene of a recurrent nightmare… but she wanted to make sure that nobody was in the cavern. Nobody of the several people she didn’t want to meet. Most of the few moving bodies were the poor sods (or the lucky stiffs) who worked here. She hunched her way (the backpack being particularly full this time) to the elevator, whose doors were sucked away instantly when she mashed the button. Safely inside, she punched the sixth floor with a residue of that stewing anger; and, as soon as the doors (irritatingly patient, as if waiting on some friggin wheelchair) sighed themselves shut again, she fell straight back, allowing her heavy load to thump the capsule’s rear wall.
Loser. Doctor Loser. “Doctor Hooter,” she had once been called—just once!—by Doctor Loser. Working at Hooter’s was probably the one thing she did—the one thing she regularly did, these past two years—which lifted her out of her gray mood. She could switch off her brain… not that she didn’t switch it off in class; but she could shift it to an entirely different gear, one where she didn’t have to be post-lobotomy clever, jargonal-perfect, revolutionary-zealous. Yeah, it was that zeal she could lose: going to class was like going to some church where she had to be constantly ready to spring up and give her testimony, to wave her hands and wail on cue. And she wasn’t a believer any more, if she ever was. At Hooters, she could actually be treated like… well, almost like… it was like respect. Men came in after a day’s work—men in suits, attorneys and executives—and they eyed her, sure. It was Hooters, wasn’t it? But most of them eyed her with the cutest little smile, like they wanted to apologize—like they just had to feast their eyes because Mother Nature had given them such a hunger, but they still knew (something in them knew) that their appetite was humiliating, and they were embarrassed. The few unequivocally male grad students she ever came into contact with had never been guilty of such a hung-up, bourgeois smile (more of Aunt Lise’s words). They just considered her an hors-d’oeuvre on the plate, waiting for them to consume or not as the whim took them. It was just it: they could browse a little in a spare room at one of Professor Menninger’s soirées, or flop down at one or the other’s apartment on a slow Saturday night. They were far, far above Hooters. They had transformed society, starting with themselves, and they didn’t need to wear a suit or lay out lots of cash to get it. As far as she could tell, that was really the one big difference between bourgeois capitalism and Marxist utopia: in the latter, you got it for nothing, if you were a man.
As the doors slid apart discreetly, her body was already in motion, having intuitively measured the rate of deceleration somewhere beneath her protruding hip pockets. She was a well-built woman. That was what had steamed up Dr. Flannigan so much about the discovery of her job at Hooters—not all that dino dung about her betraying the sisterhood. And to dump on her about it in class, yet—God, in front of six other grad students! To talk to her like that in class! IS 4265: “History and Her-Stories in the Late Eighteenth Century”… might as well be a bunch of fishermen’s wives gossiping at the stream where they wring out their wet laundry. Doctor Loser. Lisa hadn’t ever actually called her that in public, but she had come close when sarcastically dubbed “Doctor Hooter” before her six peers. She had contented herself with firing off, “So why don’t you pay my rent? Why don’t you pay my tuition? Or how about taking a cut in salary so people like me can afford to enroll and hear you bunch of wise-asses all day long?” Okay, so that had been more than a fair-to-middling rebuttal (though certainly no rhetorical gem)—so that had not only won her peers instantly back to her side, but had so cowed Doctor Loser that she had wilted into an apology. (Just wilted: you could see her as it happened, her eyes darting back and forth between Lisa and the other students, trying to size up the extent of her lost credibility. Loser.)
But none of all that was worth an ounce of glory any more. What drove Lisa crazy was trying to figure out if Dr. Flannigan had started doing Jeremy before or after the incident. Not that Jeremy was much of a loss: as a boyfriend, his deficiencies were apparent even before he had moved in with her—which Lisa should never, never had let him do, even though the River Street Rapist had her scared half to death when she came home late from waitressing (like Jeremy would have heard her screaming in the parking lot from his slug-dumb sleep, or like he would have come running even if he had heard)…. But the thought that really, really pissed her off was the whole “sisterhood” thing. The Professor of Sisterhood, the Prophet of Pink Power, a woman who might easily have been one of Aunt Lise’s classmates… and all she could do was point her sorry ass in the direction of one of her students’ boyfriends! Had it been in revenge—a stereotypically female passive-aggressive revenge—for being bested in a classroom shouting match by a mere second-year grad student? Or had she learned about Hooters, in the first place, from Jeremy—had she already roped him in (any woman with more hips than waist could rope Jeremy in with a thread) and then discovered, via pillow talk, that his girlfriend was a Hooters girl? (Jeremy would have confessed it almost like a boast, as something he was very proud of—as something to establish his stud credentials before this professorial conquest.) The timing… the timing of it all drove her crazy, and she didn’t really know why. Because it didn’t matter. Either way, Doctor Loser was signaling her (for the “accidental” discovery couldn’t have been more obvious if it had been posted on the university website’s home page)—signaling her and all the world—that the Hooters girl who had humiliated her in class couldn’t keep a boyfriend, boobs-in-tank-top notwithstanding, if she decided to steal him.
What mattered… what drove her crazy… was the hypocrisy. Yes, it was the flagrant hypocrisy of it all. Flagrant. In flagrante delicium, or whatever it was. Or maybe it was just not knowing how many times she had slept with Jeremy after The Loser had started working him out. How many times had she been… cuckolded?
Once among the stacks, Lisa began to grow a little less reflective, a little more aware of her immediate surroundings. Her current enterprise made her slightly nervous, or at least eager not to be seen by any staff member re-shelving books. Besides, she had pulled out Beginning Russian from the second stack and mis-shelved it up here only last month, so the trail to the hiding place required conscious focus. (At semester’s end, she would buy her own copy if she had scraped together some spending change; but for now, Aunt Lise’s old trick proved useful. For some reason, such texts were much in demand and not subject to renewal—probably because of all the diehard patriarchal types busily importing Russian brides to provide them with stay-at-home slaves and sultry, mute sex partners. Now her thoughts were sounding like Doctor Loser’s, who had once dribbled some bile from her ample reservoir over the mail-order bride phenomenon. Maybe that particular rant session had spurred Lisa on, perversely, to pursue Russian—that and the gloomy, jobless doctoral candidate’s remark that French and German were worthless for finding real employment now.)
The sixth stack quickly worked its standard magic on her nerves, however. It was more than a quiet place: it possessed the silence of the tomb. Most of the books up here seemed to deal with—or even be written in—dead languages: Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, Old Norse… what fun it must be looking for a job in one of those fields! Most definitely, here was the place to hide something: a book, a body, or oneself for a night. If she could just evade whatever quick sweep was made by library staff before closing time at ten, she had quite enough in her backpack to pass a relatively comfortable evening. No cars screeching in the parking lot, no doors slamming, no shouting and noisy sex on the other side of a thin wall, no phones (she had turned off her cell)… and no Jeremy. Nor any possibility of Jeremy. A library! He didn’t even know such places existed—Daddy’s monthly check was sufficient to pay off someone to write his term papers in Business Administration—and, in any case, the building would be locked up like a nuclear generator in meltdown. And, in any case, she had left no word—absolutely none, not even with Cheryl—where she might be found. Jeremy would come home, find all his stuff piled neatly outside a door with a fresh deadbolt on it (very neatly: Cheryl had once tossed her boyfriend’s stuff over a second-story rail, only to be hit later with an expensive lawsuit)… Jeremy would pound the door and howl for a while, someone would call the cops, Jeremy would look like the pampered idiot he so completely was with his CD collection on one side and his sports car on the other… and she would have to witness none of it. She might just stay here tomorrow night, too, if she could get off from her shift at Hooters in time to beat the closing hour. Maybe she could call in a favor… maybe Lindsay, or Shantelle….
There was her favorite Russian primer, safe from the fat, groping fingers of lonely computer nerds. She had discovered this spot before in her first year, when she had hidden both copies of a classic work about Moroccan women in composing a research paper. (“It’s not enough to have all the best stuff,” her auntie had explained more than once. “You have to be sure that the other guys don’t have it.”) But the ploy had been dated and ineffectual—everyone who wanted the text was thumbing it within a week, either through interlibrary loan or Amazon.com—and it had left her, besides, feeling low and sneaky. In fact, she could no longer understand her aunt’s having urged such a sordid strategy with such joy upon an innocent young niece. Maybe that was part of the seventies’ lost art, as well: an inability to perceive one’s own complete absence of principles.
She wanted to deposit her heavy pack somewhere, but she didn’t dare do so just yet: she might have to retreat into hiding suddenly, leaving her load behind. Then the dutiful drudge pushing the little book cart might haul it off to the lost-and-found, and…. Lisa glanced at her watch. Only ten more minutes, and she could spread out in peace. Where would be the best spot? There were cushioned chairs over by the windows.
Not quite on cue, a very mild voice filtered through the stacks from an invisible ceiling-speaker: “Ten minutes to closing time. Please gather your things and prepare to exit.” A mother might have used the same tone to tell an infant that sleepy time had come.
If there were any sort of physical check for malingerers, it would come very soon. Lisa rose to high alert. Even if she were caught in the innocent pose of poring over Russian grammar, the checker would not withdraw without seeing her enter the elevator bodily. She eased her nose beyond a final shoal of shelves and into a broader passageway. Nothing from the interior’s dense archipelago of book-islands. Maybe the intercom alert was the only one given… how shoddy! She veered 180 degrees on the thick heels of her Nikes, landing with infinite care against the opposite row of shelves so that her pack’s buckles would not create a stir. My God… there was actually someone reading at a table near the windows! Someone besides herself had actually discovered the sixth stack! A male, in a white shirt… a dress shirt, but without coat or tie, and the sleeves rolled halfway up to his elbows, a head of bushy but well-groomed hair bent low over an opened volume. He might have been one of her better customers—one of the more generous tippers—at Hooters. But for the fact of his being in a library, that is….
If the girl hadn’t spoken, Lisa would have been nailed for sure. As it was, she knew she still had a chance only because the voice was too muffled, too distant, to have been aimed at her. The words were not intelligible.
She back-pedaled down her aisle, not even daring to risk a turn in such a tight space with her ungainly pack, both hands thrust out stiff-fingered to keep her positioned between the two rows of shelves. She wasn’t going to make it—there wouldn’t be time to reach the aisle’s far end and melt into the shelf-line just as the checker passed. Instead, she simply froze. Maybe if she just didn’t move… she was already pretty far back from the main passage. Even with her immense pack preventing her from going flat against a cliff of titles, maybe she wouldn’t draw attention if she just didn’t move a muscle.
“But you can’t tell her anything!” the voice confided, rising, just as a petite girl with her hair pulled back in a tail flitted past the aisle’s opening. The cell phone clapped upon her right ear might have helped to block Lisa’s quarter from surveillance. In any case, the danger was gone as suddenly as it had appeared.
Lisa sighed heavily, clasping the Russian primer to her chest like a book of prayer. All this just to shake that little vermin Jeremy out of her bed sheets… she should have just put up at Cheryl’s place. But then, Cheryl was all caught up in some new guy, and there was no telling how far that had progressed… and, anyway, Lisa was too embarrassed about it all even to let her best friends in on the situation. And then, Jeremy knew all her friends and would be bugging them to find out where she’d gone to roost. He’d probably slept with some of them, at one time or another… or probably thought he had.
Having allowed her mind to idle for a few more seconds—a couple of minutes, at least—Lisa began a very deliberate stalk back up the aisle, still conscious of her pack. (A little ping could carry a very long way in an empty library.) There was something else holding her back, too. She grew more aware of it as the carpet of the main passage fell nearer and nearer to her advancing foot, until—finally—she found that she could not take that last step into the open. Something was wrong… something temporarily immersed in the shallow, bubbling surf of her stupid fretting about Jeremy. She waited for the surf to recede, and at last it did.
The man. The man reading. He had been seated not thirty feet away from her spying eye. The checker couldn’t possibly have missed him… and yet, not a word had been spoken. Maybe… maybe that petite chick on the cell wasn’t staff.
Lisa flipped her wrist to bring to hour into view again. Perfectly on cue this time, the lights overhead dimmed silently to a mere star-glow. She had done it: the sixth stack was shut down, sealed off, and she was still inside. Her right hand reached out to lean heavily upon the bookshelf’s last vertical support—the one facing the main passage, with Dewey decimals sure to be plastered over it just inches from her hair roots. It had been a long day… a long week.
But that man! Maybe he had just nodded at the girl and followed her meekly, leaving his book behind, absolving her from interrupting her cell-phone conversation with some polite, obedient gesture. (There were men like that, sometimes, in libraries.) Or maybe he was one of those sad types known to all the librarians and staff who seemed to spend every waking hour in the stacks—who didn’t seem to have any other life. Maybe he and the girl had exchanged a usual closing-time nod. “Yes, Mr. Smith, it’s that time again. Up with you, now. See you first thing tomorrow.”
It was as if she had needed to rehearse all these scenes before looking—as if she had hoped, against hope, that two or three rational explanations might erase the stark fact of an irrational occurrence. When she did peek out again at last, a little groan escaped her—the kind that a sleeper releases in turning over, in shaking off a bad dream. Except that she had turned head-on into the bad dream.
For there was simply no way to explain how he could still be there. Or maybe one. Only one—but one was enough. The chick on the cell hadn’t been staff at all. No, they didn’t even check before they locked up—a voice just purled a lullaby over some distant loudspeaker. Very, very shoddy.
Yet just as Lisa, somewhat heartened, was about to launch herself into full view, another consideration gripped her shoulders. Here she was, locked up for the night with a strange man… not a very menacing man, but still a man. Did she want to let him know of her presence? She could easily slip away to the stack’s far side. There were cushioned chairs over there, too…. Yes, but could she sleep like that, knowing a stranger to be locked up on the same floor with her? Knowing that he might stumble upon her in her sleep… could she sleep, knowing that such a thing might happen? She knew herself too well… and she needed at least a few hours’ sleep.
In the end, she adopted the opposite approach. The best defense is a good offense.
Plunging boldly into the carpeted corridor (where the saddle-grunts of her pack compensated for the lack of warning in her muted footsteps), Lisa was already feeling for the proper tone of chirp. Would she slightly scold (“What are you doing here? Didn’t you hear the closing announcement?”), or would she instantly be more conspiratorial (“So… you’re doing an all-nighter. Well, I won’t put you out if don’t break any more rules. Absolutely no booze”)…. Most certainly, she would pull out her cell and pretend to phone in downstairs. (“It’s okay, Stephanie. You can tell security I’m here, just don’t tell the big boss. I’ve got to get through this cataloguing, and you know what happens tomorrow…”.) Yeah, something like that. Not too thick, though.
Yet as she neared the man, her resolution melted away. Not melted, exactly… not at all melted, but something like the reverse—like a stream freezing into a rivulet, and then into a prostrate icicle. She physically felt herself getting colder—between her shoulders, up the back of her neck, through her scalp and into her nostrils. Her fingertips and toes. Her ribs… her heart. Somewhere just short of the table’s far end, just against a chair which had been left thrust out in the walkway, the balls of her feet grew so cold that they stuck to the carpet, right through her jogging shoes. The light, though already dimmed, grew dimmer still—and in the most artificial, unnatural manner, as if the incalculably remote neon bulbs had rotated to some odd angle behind the shelves, or even under the floor. The only thing that appeared stable, at the her line of sight’s precise focal point, was the reading figure, forever reading, its slender shoulders forever slouched under an open collar, its head of ruffled hair forever bent in deep study. For some reason, she realized that it was the most tragic figure she had ever seen, or ever could see. So much intensity, as the eternal sun was finally flickering its last and as the great empty universe was poised to snuff out the candle in a puff of absolute-zero breath. So much absorption, or indifference. Or despair.
She was aware that she was still breathing only by the chill which passing air created on her lips. She must have been gaping.
And then he looked up at her. It was the simplest movement in the world—too simple, simpler than any movement in the living world. For the direct lift of the head was aimed straight at her, and the deep, deep, immeasurably deep sadness in the black eyes held neither greeting nor indignation nor discomfort nor surprise nor hope nor fear—nothing in the least of any of these—but a geometric power, instead, of some hurt from far, far beyond their meeting. A hurt which had nothing to do with her, with this meeting… and so a hurt which must have been sitting there all the time, even as he was reading and reading, and which must have overshadowed everything he read and resisted everything he read. A hurt without age, as old as the world. And yet… and yet, a very young hurt, like a child’s after being told his first great lie.
Despite the fit of shivering which now shook her from ear to toenail, Lisa felt moisture welling in her eyes. Those other eyes seemed to communicate it to her, like a dark flame. “Why?” she inhaled, almost in a sob; and then, with faintly more sense, “Who are you?”
He couldn’t possibly have heard her, even across six or eight feet of tabletop. But he had, of course: for the limits of possibility had become a mere memory.
“I have to read every book in the library. I have to. I read, all the time. Before, when I was alive, I wanted to be a scholar. It was all I ever wanted in the world. I read then, too. But it didn’t seem to be enough. Once, when I was very far along in the program, I put into a paper everything I had read about and thought about for years. It was the best of my dissertation. It was the best of everything I had ever done. I had people look at it, and they said that it was good. They called it scholarly. So I sent it to a scholarly journal, a journal I had read for years, where great scholars were published. They sent it back. They wrote that it was disturbing. They wrote that I had made big mistakes and small mistakes, too. The big mistakes, they said, were disturbing. So I took my paper and came up here. I checked all my facts again, and I read more books and articles. But still I couldn’t understand why they had written what they had. The more I read, the less I understood. I read so much that…”
The words stopped, although the eyes continued to search her (or search for something through or beyond her) without ever blinking. Lisa had the sensation—the wholly outlandish sensation—of time having stopped, as well. She felt that he would begin to speak again if she gave him the faintest nudge, just as an old grandfather clock may need a nudge at the pendulum to resume ticking.
“What did you do?” she whispered over her frozen tongue, her teeth never touching.
“It was Christmas. It was Christmas break.”
“Yes. There was nobody here. The library was all shut up. They hadn’t noticed me, and I hadn’t thought about that. Christmas. And they didn’t come and open up, and I didn’t try to get out. It seemed like the perfect chance to read more. And I still tried to read, even when I couldn’t sit up any more. Even when I couldn’t see any more. I could see the words better in my mind than on the page, after a while. So I closed my eyes and read them in my mind.”
“And… no one missed you?”
He didn’t seem to hear the question, or perhaps to understand it (for he seemed to hear everything). She tried another. “When did this happen?”
His eyes appeared to concentrate upon her, ever so slightly. She thought she could almost distinguish black pupils from huge, very brown irises. “When?”
“… did it happen? How long ago?”
“Just now. Everything is now, just now. That was the first thing I realized, when I opened my eyes again. I saw them take my body away. And then I sat down and started reading where I had left off. Only I knew now that the words were saying nothing. They go in circles, like birds. Like a flock of restless birds, they circle and circle. Always around the same point. Once I knew that everything is now, I could see the arcs of all the circles. And the more I read, the more I see the arcs. Over and over, the same circles. For centuries… writers of all times, all places. The same restless birds. Everywhere, in all kinds of scholarship. The historians, the scientists, the ones who turn people into numbers… the numbers, too, make circles, Especially the numbers. And I have to count them all, over and over and over. Until, at the end, I end up where I started. Which is now.”
Lisa labored for several seconds before she could draw enough breath for her next word. “But… are you in hell?”
The huge, dark, sad eyes found her still more precisely, deepened until they hinted that softness was depth’s final stage, and strangely embraced her in one of their circles—the circles they embodied, and studied in print, and traced in objects. She could feel them tracing—ever so softly—the arc of some circle around her hair and shoulders and shoes, like a sidewise halo.
“Even here, the books are not infinite.”
Now her breaths were drawing so much air, every one, that they almost deafened her. When she tried to slow them down, they only broke into saw-toothed edges. The moisture in her eyes had spread to her throat: the frozen core within her was thawing.
“Then why… why don’t they let you go? You’ve… you’ve learned your lesson!”
“It’s not a lesson. It’s something to be done. Something I must do—”
“But why?” she actually interrupted. “Doesn’t… does no one mourn for you?”
“God in heaven. He mourns for me.”
“Oh.” Finally Lisa caught her breath, nodding as though she had understood. The nod carried her gaze infinitesimally downward. When she looked back up a split second later, he was back at his reading.
She fitted together a couple of cushioned chairs at the far end of the tabled section. From her headrest, peeking between her lashes from time to time, she could see his slumping, white-shirted shoulders. At one point, she started up from a half-sleep and called, “I’ll mourn for you!” And then she fell off into a dreamless slumber.
All the same, Lisa would have expected herself to wake up the next morning with the sensation of having dreamed a great deal, and very creatively. She was faintly shocked at her lack of shock. Grazing on cold Pop Tarts, brushing her teeth and straightening up in the Women’s Room, reading behind a thickly booked set of shelves near the elevator until five minutes after opening time, she was somehow accompanied by a feeling that he (whom she could no longer see, or at least did not see in her morning rambles) was more real than any of the solid objects casually passing before her eyes. She even thought to do an Internet search of local news stories on the monitor near the elevator—for the computer system was apparently never shut down. She went back twenty years, then thirty, then forty (his sideburns, which she only now recalled, suggested that she should have started at around forty: Seventies Day at her high school had taught her that much); and she used keyword phrases like “library suicide” and “Christmas tragedy”. Nothing. He was as invisible online as he was, apparently, in person to others except for her.
It was that certainty of having been specially chosen, perhaps, which made her cling to the experience throughout the day. The staff person on the cell phone had not seen him, at any rate—and there were definitely no rumors circulating about the library’s being haunted. That meant that she herself… yes, she had been selected. She had special powers, or special potential. It was an exhilarating sense, but also a solemn one. Suddenly she was taking her life very seriously. It occurred to her that she should think about her own choices and selections over the next few months very carefully.
Then, too, she discovered the pride (was it a joy, even?) of mourning for someone, and particularly of being the only mourner. She remembered that drowsy promise, for some reason, with piercing clarity as she was turning instinctively from the sun’s first shafts on her borrowed cushions. It didn’t seem much like mourning, those smiling sighs she heaved from time to time. (She knew that the sighs drew smiles, because she surprised one of them in the mirror of the library’s restroom.) Were you not supposed to smile when you mourned for someone? But it was a sad kind of a smile (she studied it in the Ladies’ Room at Hooters that evening: the merest thought of him immediately brought its ghost to her lips). She didn’t really know anything about mourning… but it seemed to her that she was going about it the right way, if only because all of her emotions were unforced. She felt so sorry for him, sorrier than she had ever felt for anyone. Why, then, was there that hint of a smile? She hadn’t time to figure it out. She decided simply that she wouldn’t try to suppress it—she wouldn’t suppress anything, where he was concerned.
If she had only known his name, she could have gone to a cemetery and put flowers on a grave… something like that. In one of her afternoon classes, she discreetly asked another student who, she knew, worked in the Main Library whether she had ever heard of a young man starving to death over Christmas break in the Graduate stacks. The girl didn’t wait until their class met again, two days later. Lisa took a call on her cell between waiting tables that evening and was informed that she had very nearly cost her classmate a good job. “He was like, ‘Where did you hear that?’ and then, ‘That’s the most disgusting thing I ever heard!’ and then, ‘If you ever breathe a word of that to anyone, I’ll have you kicked so far off this campus you won’t be able to find it with a map.’ He’s, you know, like about fifty or something. Really old. It’s like Nixon, or something. You know, how they’re all going to cover it up. God, was he pissed! I could kill you, Lisa! But I was, like, thinking, you know. It might be one of those things where they start promoting me, because I know too much. You know, like the old Soviet Union , or something? That would be so cool! Every time he gets mad at me, I’ll just say, like, ‘Well, okay, guess I’ll go find an empty shelf and lie down and die.’”
It was the most solid confirmation they could have received—her classmate was right about that.
And the confirmation made her still more… more secure, more solemn yet smiling—more happy—than ever. She now had objective poof that something incredibly out of the ordinary, something absolutely unique, had chosen to make her its center. And she was grateful, so grateful to be special, even though she couldn’t quite pinpoint anything special about herself or her life. But that itself, no doubt, was the point: she was going to be special. If she only remained alert to opportunity, she was going to have a life that neither her mother nor Aunt Lise nor Doctor Loser had ever dreamed of.
Her conduct assumed a new note of confident daring, as a result. Not that any daring was needed to make Jeremy’s banishment stick… he had apparently shown up at the apartment thoroughly soused on the night of her “experience”, and the inevitably summoned security guard had dispatched a call to the metropolitan police, who had in turn invited Jeremy to their place downtown. One of the lesser vertebrates at the best of times, Jeremy could manage to muster no more of a presence in her life now than the occasional “homeless puppy” routine in an empty booth at Hooters—a bid for reconciliation doubly doomed to failure. In the first place, he couldn’t very well apologize for sleeping with one of her professors when he had no reason to think her wise to the adventure and, therefore, had every reason to sustain a “What did I do?” attitude. In the second place, the sight of so many ripe busts in so many tight t-shirts made the puppy’s whimpers turn to panting within minutes. The poor slob was simply overpowered by his surroundings.
A far more significant triumph occurred when the departmental chair called Lisa in for advising at the end of the week. No ordinary advising, this, but an exhortation to think ahead to the thesis, or maybe the doctoral option where the thesis was skipped and the dissertation approached at full speed. The Chair took a personal interest in such matters, since the department was small (as in “tiny”… as in “about to wither away and leave me unemployed”).
“Dr. Flannigan has expressed an interest in being your thesis director, having followed your work closely,” said the woman who had once been an expert witness for seven seconds on Dateline.
Lisa had been bowled over by this testimonial to Doctor Loser’s good will—but only briefly. What better way both to save face and to create chances for further revenge upon the “upstart undergrad” than to become her official mentor?
“Dr. Flannigan… no. No. She and I don’t hit it off.”
The Chair looked most sincerely surprised. “Really? May I ask why? Perhaps it’s something that we can… perhaps if I could mediate…”
“No. No mediation, please. Just don’t try to put us together. In any circumstances.”
The Chair wrung groans from her chair as she squared her hips and leaned dramatically forward over her desk. Lisa couldn’t help but be impressed by the new atmosphere of “hush, hush” urgency in these movements, as if a top-secret plan to replace all male administrators with females had just fallen on the blotter between them.
“Now, Lisa, you really must tell me… what has happened? You know that you graduate students have always come first with me—you’re our hope for the future! Come on, now… it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve heard reports about Carol—Dr. Flannigan. You owe it to your peers…”
“No,” Lisa resisted, “it’s really not something I care to discuss.” Yet she was aware that a mine field was gathering about her even as she stubbornly stood in her tracks. The all-but-dissertation grad student whose brain she had been picking lately had alerted her to some of the intricacies of academic chess. This seemed to be one such match. One moment Flannigan was “our department’s rising star”: the next she was “that loose cannon, that saboteur”. With a sisterhood like this, who needed snipers? And, if Lisa wanted to be part of The Sisterhood, her next words, she realized, must be chosen very carefully.
Then, as her eyes fluttered uneasily among the Chair’s bookcases, she saw—only in her mind, but saw clearly there—a gaunt young man in a white shirt, his bushy hair perhaps bent over one of these very books, digging the circles out of the dense rhetoric. It was in that instant that she discovered how much meaning the heady sport of career-chess had lost for her.
“Actually, Dr. Ketzer, I’m seriously thinking of doing something else. Of leaving grad school, I mean, and doing something else.”
The top-secret plan on the desk had released a colorless, odorless nerve gas: the Chair, paralyzed, sank limply back upon her groaning leather cushions.
“Oh, I might finish the Master’s, since I already have most of the hours. But… I might take some more Russian classes, and then go for a job in the State Department. Or maybe even a private firm. Oil companies are looking for bilingual contract-negotiators… something like that.”
Checkmate in one move. And the move had consisted of her merely refusing to play.
Yet the most influential effect of Lisa’s new confidence was neither deliberately planned nor decisively enacted nor, for that matter, clearly perceptible to her. It had to do with men, and sex. Jeremy, of course, was history—not “her-story” (please!), and far more myth than chronicle, and far less myth than bland, bleached-out lie. But the days turned into weeks, and nobody jockeyed for the lead in the race for her newly available favors. Or they did, actually: that was an unstated part of employment at Hooters (a necessary pain or an added perk, depending upon your perspective)… but she seemed to stop seriously noticing any of them. Not even that, really—because she did mildly respond, seemed to respond (she had the sensation of watching herself like a third party throughout this overture), to an older man who always came in alone, always neatly but not showily dressed in a cardigan and tie or a dark suit, and usually carrying some envelope or manila folder whose contents he perused over a filet. He was cordial with her to the point of awkwardness (the cute little embarrassed smile so common among the forty-something executives was supplemented with an occasional stammer and blush). Yet he would not hesitate to ask after her if someone else caught his table—a presumption which was quickly common currency in the kitchen (“Lisa—your man’s here!”), as he must have known it would be within minutes of his first query, and which justified his extra trace of nervousness; for asking after a particular waitress was taking it to another level. At least he had the discretion not to tip too heavily.
But was “it” the same thing as it? For Lisa, not in the least. She allowed herself to be “uncled” by the man precisely because he was polite and discreet, because she hardly ever caught him ogling her t-shirt like part of the filet, and because… because his name was Frantisek Something-Or-Other, and he spoke with an Eastern European (but not quite Russian) accent. His considerable bald spot didn’t bother her: on the contrary, it emphasized his formidable cranium. As for his little mustache, it was alright in an uncle. She wasn’t sure how she would have taken it in a lover, and she couldn’t shift Frantisek to that rank in her imagination… which was proof, after all, that she wasn’t seriously flirting with him.
The only reason why anybody might have suspected otherwise was because of what did not go on in her life any longer. Weeks grew into months, and still there were no acknowledged leaders in the Jeremy Replacement Sweepstakes. Lisa never even thought about it. To the extent that she thought about any young man, she thought about him, with her mourning smile (not the embarrassed smile of a Frantisek, but… God, could it have been called mothering?). When she could manage a quick visit to the Graduate Library—which was seldom more than once a week—she would wander about the whole place, hoping for a glimpse of him. She was usually disappointed at first: indeed, she took her failures pretty hard when they began to include several visits in a row. She eventually figured out, however, that her error lay in concentrating on the sixth stack. His reading was not systematic in any way which someone from her world could have identified: on the contrary, it appeared entirely haphazard, taking him from floor to floor and from corner to corner as the hour hand slowly ran its circles around the clock. She at last discovered that the most reliable procedure was to look for a nook where no living humans were seated. Then, if she went to the area and began to feel very chilly all of a sudden, she would turn and find him at her side, reading away. Sometimes she would even follow verbal clues overheard from snatches of conversation (“The air-conditioning won’t shut off on the second floor”… “Let’s sit in the sun—it’s too cold over there”). Sometimes, with about the same success, she would just “feel” her way, with as little conscious reflection as possible, to the loneliest, saddest spot she could find—which, miraculously (or not so miraculously, for those like her who understood), would physically shift by day and by week.
Whenever she finally found those frail, white-clad shoulders and that studiously bent head of curls (“Brother Patrick”, she now styled him in her mind, harkening vaguely to the image of some not-yet-tonsured medieval monk), her first impulse would be to reach out and stroke the shoulder blades, the disheveled hair. A bubble would well up in her throat to the size of a balloon, despite an inevitable onset of the shivers, and she would want to cry something like, “My poor Brother Patrick”—but even more like, “My son—my boy! My sweet boy!” And she would stop just as her fingertips twitched and her lips parted, both because she knew that people might stare and also (primarily—for there were never any people close by) because the contradictions in her near-utterances always brought her up short, puzzling her deeply, even shocking her.
“Virgin Mary,” an unsatisfied customer grumbled at her one night (a few too many beers into the night) after she had resisted his attempt to nestle a twenty against each of her breasts. The bartender had a meaningful discussion with the frustrated donor shortly thereafter, and she had supposed the incident dead in its tracks along with a hundred others of its kind. The next week, however, a blond beanpole who had composed part of this frat-rat band used the same phrase behind her back. She heard it: “Virgin Mary”—and then a couple of sniggers. Not one, but a couple. From then on, the words cropped up at least once a week around the fringes of her service: at her back as she turned away with an order or at her elbow as she briskly passed with a laden tray. A certain contingent of the clientele, apparently, had come to regard her as an exceptionally hard “score”—not that she had been more receptive before. But now that Jeremy was long out of the picture and no one else had stepped into the frame, her eligibility seemed to draw comment. It annoyed her. She had never realized either that she had briefly worn some man’s “brand” or that certain men—certain boys who hadn’t yet made landfall on the shores of manhood—fixed the number of points attached to various targets with such precision.
Yet it was really just the magnitude of this new interest in “having” her (or of this new resentment that she was not to be had) that took her by surprise. She had known the ground rules since eighth grade (when her scalp was first taken). Cheryl’s meltdown had been something else again. It soon became clear that things were not progressing at all well with her new man. She arrived at work dangerously late too often, had rings under her lids which make-up couldn’t hide, broke dishes at a suicidal rate, resumed smoking, and could sometimes be seen to emerge from the restroom with red eyes. One rainy Wednesday, just before closing, the restaurant was all but empty. The waitresses, fearful of being caught sitting down, leaned heavily against bars and counters. Lisa was in such a posture when Cheryl flopped up beside her, elbow to elbow. Lisa tried not to tense when a “been meaning to ask you” conversation started up, complete with broken-off sighs that belied the casual lead-in. Cheryl had never hit her up for money before… but there was always a first time. She quickly tried to recall how much was stashed in her bank account.
“I… do you think I’m cute?”
This was different! Lisa snorted, faintly relieved. “You’re very cute, Cheryl. Too cute for most of these slobs.”
She was going to add something like, “You should get out more—I’ll bet work is the only place you ever go.” But what she had just said seemed to bring down whatever leaky dam was holding her friend back.
“Do you want me? I mean… I mean….” And Cheryl’s arms began to quiver so visibly that Lisa thought of her ghost. “Maybe I’m not… I’ve been thinking after this last one, Lisa. I’ve been thinking a lot, I mean a lot. Maybe I’m not… you know. Straight. Maybe I’m not meant to be straight. I keep trying, but every time is worst than the last. I think this time was my limit—I don’t think I can go through this again. And so I thought… I mean, I’ve been noticing that, since Jeremy… I mean, maybe we should at least try. Maybe it would turn out to be just what we’ve always been looking for. You think?”
Three guys stomped in noisily out of the rain just then and headed for Lisa’s beat. It was brutal to leap up and leave Cheryl that way, but…. She almost patted her friend on the wrist, yet drew back at the last instant; and that faint gesture, as luck would have it, was even more brutal. She couldn’t find Cheryl again that evening and couldn’t raise her on her cell. It was terrible, so terrible. Her best friend… she thought about driving over to her place. But… but would that send a message which she would only have to take back?
The tragedy’s implications regarding her own appearance to others only struck her as she showered before bed. So now this Virgin Mary thing had her being gay… all because she had ditched Jeremy and didn’t want one of his clones. Had Jeremy himself, perhaps, circulated the story to cover for being tossed out on his ass? Then she started wondering about the department chair, Dr. Ketzer, who was openly gay (and whose split with Flannigan was probably centered on their sexual orientations, as rumor had it). Her solicitous concern over what Lisa would choose to do with her life… was it just a bureaucrat trying to keep her office from being closed down, or was there something more? How general now was the perception of her own gayness, and how long had it been out there?
It was quite possible that such gossiping (which did not offend her in its content so much as in its severe trespass upon her personal life) helped to nudge Lisa into an affair with Frantisek. On one occasion, as she hovered about his politely bowed head so officiously that her shirt’s tightest-stretched points almost buffed his shiny crown, he murmured an acknowledgment in some foreign language. It was just a couple of syllables—or maybe three… but for some reason, she murmured back over his clear cranium, “Spaseebo.” She instantly started to blush: she should almost certainly have said “you’re welcome” instead of “thanks”. But the murmur held its own justification, faintly intimate in its almost inaudible soothing: no point in trying to edit it now, which would create an absurd awkwardness. Just collect the empty plate and beat a retreat.
To her wonder, however, he reared his head back, his eyes widening at the ancient football helmets over his booth, and drew so deep a breath through his nose that she looked back in alarm, vaguely summoning her memories of the Heinrich Maneuver. He was smiling, however… or trying to keep from smiling.
Having glanced at her twice to establish that she was truly delaying her departure to gather whatever wisdom he might impart, he explained, “You mustn’t speak Russian to an expatriate Czech. ”
And then he did smile—he actually laughed—with a busy wave of the fork. “No, no, it’s—it’s excellent! Excellent that you should know these words! Remarkable. And there are no more Czech expatriates, anyway—only Czechs who come for the American Dream. Everybody now, they all come for your American Dream… and the younger ones have all forgotten their European nightmares. Or never knew them. Only the older ones, like me.”
“I’ll… I’ll get you some mustard.”
She was upset with herself for having failed to respond in some manner that signaled her interest. Yet when she returned, he asked her bluntly if she would care to attend a campus lecture on Saturday evening by a former East German diplomat.
“It is sure to be very sparsely attended,” he mused sadly; and then, shaking himself, “but, of course, you must work on Saturday night—”
“I can switch shifts with someone,” she interrupted earnestly. Her eagerness brought them around a difficult bend in the road which her earlier lack of wit had left unchallenged.
Beyond that point, the path to his bed seemed downhill and straight. He had not told her beforehand that he would be deserting her briefly in the audience (an audience of about two dozen, sure enough) to participate in a panel discussion after the lecture. She decided that his finely clipped mustache was both very serviceable and rather becoming: it gave his upper lip the appearance of a determined, masculine fixity (how few males she had known who could remain fixed upon anything!), and it also kept his broad brow from utterly dominating the rest of his face. When he asked her, after the modest reception (wine and cheese), if “you wish me to take you home now,” she had answered without expression (she could feel her chin lift, as if she were about to announce a head of state’s death), “You can take me anywhere you like.”
Their love-making was similarly solemn, almost ritual. He seemed to pause several times after ushering her into his pricey bachelor apartment, no doubt preparing himself to say, “Are you sure you want to do this?” But each time he recollected himself just before a fatal word or gesture escaped. Modestly, almost apologetically, he removed his clothes and hung them neatly over an armchair as she watched (having slipped out of her dress and underwear in half the time) from under the bed sheets. Then he turned out the only light. For long minutes, he merely held her hand and stroked her flank exploratively, tentatively. At last he came to her like a boy who had decided all at once to unveil a dark secret to his mother. He clasped her ribs tight to him, as a drowning man would a floating oar, and the inarticulate sounds that he called into the pillow at her ear had the plaintive note of a deep hurt—an outrage or a shame or a fear that had kept the boy off the playground. All she did was receive him: his caresses, his lunges, his grasps, his whimpers. It was all she had to do—it was what he needed most, the only thing he really needed. Someone to hold onto him. If it had been otherwise—if he had suggested that they assume odd postures, as the ever-inventive Jeremy always did (inventive in that way, though in no other), she would have thrown her clothes back on faster than she had discarded them. The “old enough to be my father” factor suddenly would have trumped everything else, and she would have breezed out with the word “pervert” on her mind, if not her lips.
Yet she must have suspected instinctively, without understanding why, that she would find a boy in this middle-aged man once she, the college girl, received him as a woman. Somehow it was the most natural thing in the world for their ages to flip-flop. And, more surprising still, she discovered a fully natural pleasure in giving him pleasure. The pleasures she and Jeremy would wring and wrestle from each other were all local and carnal, and ironically left them more distanced as human beings, since both of them knew that the other had tasted and grazed in a self-centered pursuit. This was… it was the ultimate hug for a different kind of male in her experience, one who was aware of being nearer to the grave than the cradle, and who had supposed his final chance for love to be long, long past. She could feel all this as if it were being whispered in her ear. She had thought it all out before he had even released her.
And, just before he released her, as she closed her eyes and hugged tight, she was astonished to find—inside her lids, and on the dark ceiling when her lids popped open—a curly-haired, jet-eyed man-child trying to lace his soul through her ribs.
In her stupor (for, at that instant, she lay staring as if paralyzed into the penumbrous ceiling, its shadows even deeper than the gray fed from a mist of street light around the drapes), she didn’t notice Frantisek reaching for a cigarette. Only the sulfurous scent of a struck match alerted her.
“Do you have to smoke?” she murmured flatly, reflexively.
“No. No, of course not. Forgive me. I had forgotten that you Americans…”
And then his gently exhaled, almost silent laugh. He didn’t finish the remark.
Lisa tried to rouse herself from her hypnosis. She was growing dimly aware that, even in the dark, her sluggishness would be perceptible, and would be interpreted as disappointment. She found his arm with her fingers—a thin, hairy arm.
“That we Americans… what?”
“Oh….” And yet again, the laugh. “It doesn’t matter. You’re quite right. A disgusting habit.”
She thought of all the European novels she had read where the characters smoke after making love, and then (without logical connection) of how many indulgences she and her countrymen allowed themselves to compensate for a few carcinogenic drags. No doubt, he had been on the verge of raising some such inconsistency. (“Second-hand smoke is a crime here, but you all have to own sports cars”… touché.) She squeezed his wrist: she liked it that he had refused to carry through the observation.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” she heard herself asking the ceiling, alert to any new tension in the wrist.
But the flesh beneath her fingertips remained entirely limp… and there was no laugh, either. Of all the times not to laugh! She listened to him breathing regularly for a few moments. Then he began what instantly, incongruously sounded like some sort of confession or reminiscence. “When I was a boy, our neighbors two houses over… they had a ghost in the attic. Not a very friendly ghost, either. It was well known that the attic should be avoided at certain times. The old urban residences rise quite high in my part of the world, by your standards, for they are also very thin. A pair of rooms stacked upon a pair of rooms, like a rectangular slice of wedding cake. And the houses on our block shared walls, so you could hear the ghost at certain times from the attics of the adjoining houses. But it was quite possible simply to avoid him. A male ghost, of course. The females are rarely violent. You see, Americans… forgive me to be mentioning Americans in this vein again, but I am not being critical. I am really quite… quite full of admiration. Of envy, perhaps. But… you are all so young! A ghost is something from a cartoon to you. You do not live upon the soil where your great-grandfather’s great-grandfather once attended his great-grandfather’s funeral in the ancestral cemetery. And neither do I, now. For I, too, am becoming an American. Except that it is too late, in my case. I have no American dreams, only European ghosts and nightmares. I cannot drink of the fountain of youth.”
He drifted into a silence so profound that it awoke Lisa from her spell as no fuming match or fidgeting on the mattress could have done. It seemed, indeed—that silence—to build an enchanted bridge to the ceiling’s dark recesses, where the other face (a face of ancient youth, or of young antiquity) continued to echo.
“Lisa,” he said at last, across this bridge which had now grown firm, “listen to me carefully. I have thought about you constantly in recent days. Not as… not as an American male thinks about a ‘hot date’, but as a man with very little to live for any longer thinks about an extraordinary chance which has suddenly crossed his path. A chance to pull another human being from the water. You think you are the only castaway left alive, and you curse fortune for leaving you alone in an open boat over the abyss… and then, quite suddenly, you realize that you are in a position to pull another person to safety. A young person—young, and talented, and beautiful, and sensitive… a person infinitely better suited than you were at her age to live an extraordinary life. Or perhaps I was not so unsuited, at your age… but there was no one to pull me out, do you see. And… I want to pull you from this… please forgive again, but from this infantile box-top billboard culture to which an accident of birth has condemned you. You do not walk into your workplace wearing a headset—what do you call it? An X-Pod? You do not sneak into a corner during business hours and prattle on your cell phone. The other girls, yes… but not you. There is a natural grace and modesty in your movements… a maturity. An immeasurable potential. You are a pearl among swine. Forgive me—of course, I do not know your friends, but… but I speak very broadly. For such is the truth of the matter.
“Now listen. I want to do some very important things for you. I want to be your benefactor. I do not say this because… please, please do not imagine for an instant that this is a quid pro quo for… for tonight. I should have made this same proposal in… in other circumstances, later on. And, even worse, you must never think that I am attempting to bribe you for… for further demonstrations of kindness such as you have shown to me tonight. It is highly unlikely that a beautiful young woman would take an interest in a withered, balding man. It is not in the nature of things. I should like to see you have better success, in that regard. But there is something unnatural, as well, about a man who lives his whole life and then has no heir, nobody to favor with the wisdom and power he has painfully amassed—and at what cost! God, at what cost! But… so, you are to be my… my protégée. You must let me do this for you.”
Into the ceiling’s darkness, from her end of the bridge, she asked very simply (for his suggestion brought no solid images to her mind whatever), “What is it that… that you see me doing? What would I be good at?”
“Youth!” She could detect his smile in the exhalation. “What was it that Christ said? ‘This generation… they must have a sign!’ No, I cannot tell you precisely. You see… it’s a matter of putting yourself in a position to take advantage of opportunities. I can introduce you to people… but it will help that you have some interest in other languages. And it would help more if you would continue your Russian. What I can supply for you that no diploma or curriculum vitae can do is vouch for your discretion—for your general freedom from the frivolity which has undermined your generation and your countrymen. And that character reference, if I may say so, is of inestimable value in these circles.”
“So… it’s… are these government jobs you’re talking about?” She was having difficulty navigating between her invaluable reputation for being discreet and a ravenous curiosity—a tug-of-war thrown further off balance by the citation of Christ. This man’s strange past… who in Interdisciplinary Studies would ever have cited Christ? “Would I work for the government, then?” Which government?
“You see… I hate to answer ‘yes and no’. it is perhaps more a matter… at least in the early going… of working with governments. No, it does not involve carrying a laser gun. No, you will not be required to sleep with drunken diplomats and heads of state. No, you will not have a suicide pill hidden within a hollow tooth.”
He laughed, and then she began to laugh—which put a voice into his laughter, which made her laughter peal until her flexing diaphragm forced her halfway through a sit-up.
“No Jamie Bond?”
“Jamie Bond! No, my dear! I am afraid it is nothing so Hollywood-esque. Neither Double-O Seven nor Natasha Lisovnova. You will still be Lisa—your sweet, wonderful self—and you will get vacations and a pension, and all the other bourgeois perks. But eventually, you may also have a high-level security clearance, and you may well chance to meet some diplomats and heads of state. As you did tonight, indeed. Whether you want to sleep with them will be up to you—I’m sure they will all try for your favors. But you would be wiser to find some blond All-American running back who has graduated to selling insurance. He will be healthier for you, and you will be far happier.”
Lisa was further advised (when Frantisek revisited the subject the next morning) that she should put her Hooters t-shirt—“which you wear most magnificently”—into moth balls and set her sights on some sort of internship (“the sort of thing your graduate program would already have done for you if its directors were not incurably outraged against all of life’s basic realities”). He appeared to know rather more about her qualifications and interests than she had ever told him directly (it was the one thing about him which truly bothered her), and he intimated that something in the state senate offices for this spring was a distinct possibility.
It was happening: before her eyes, she was becoming special. Was it merely a couple of months or so ago that she had been squirreling books away in the sixth stack and letting a career frat boy watch sports channels from her sofa, run up her cell-phone bill, and show her off at his orgies? That was all changing now, already—and it would never be the same again. She was even creating a budget for new clothes. You couldn’t prance around the senate offices in a Hooters shirt and Nikes… or maybe some interns did, but she wouldn’t be one of them. It would be nice to put on something that actually made her feet look good (a part of her body which the big tippers didn’t know existed); and, as soon as she got out of waitressing, her soles wouldn’t be sore all the time.
The sixth stack… she guessed she wouldn’t be hanging around libraries much longer. Was she putting that—putting him—behind her, as well? Or wasn’t he fulfilled, rather, in all that was happening now? Wasn’t his promise of specialness to her coming true… hadn’t he made such a promise, by implication—by appearing to her and no other?
She felt an urgent need to… to “check in” with him, to feel the chill of his proximity shooting up her spine once more, and to see his head of bushy hair bent over a book as a young monk would bend over his breviary. (Even her vocabulary was filling out: the words had already been there—but now that her company was improving, she didn’t have to communicate in monosyllables.) It seemed a strange notion: looking forward to that horrid chill. She couldn’t think of anything else in her experience that had ever repelled her so much while also… not delighted her, certainly, but… but made her proud. Made her feel special. Maybe it was like church, for people who really believed. Maybe Brother Patrick was something like her religion. Was that changing about her, too—was she starting to believe in things unseen? It would be pretty stupid not to, when you regularly visited a ghost!
Yet she couldn’t seem to arrange an encounter with her private specter the next week—not on any level. She couldn’t even locate a particularly chilly or abandoned corner in the stacks. There was probably too much coming and going: some sort of big display for next Saturday. A placard outside the entrance had announced something about the Holocaust. The foyer and much of the first floor were the scene of hurried heavy lifting, dusting off, and taping up. Casements for documents had apparently been brought in for the occasion, many shelves had been collapsed upon each other to make room for chairs, and bulky reference books overflowed through the elevator into higher stacks. Brother Patrick could not have cared much for such hustle and bustle, whose effects were felt even in that attic of unsought volumes and traditions, the sixth stack.
Lisa grew sincerely flustered after her second try in a week turned up no traces of “presence”. Frantisek was urging her to leave her job as soon as possible, insisting that he could find something for her immediately. (Was he worried about “competition” from the Jeremy set, or… since that seemed unfair, did he, perhaps, really grieve to think of her in a tight, thin shirt and high cut-offs, the way a father would—the father who had been absent for most of her life?) She certainly wasn’t averse to his suggestion—but she didn’t like trusting him (or trusting anyone) to such an extent, either. How could you leave one job without having another firmly in the bag? If she had only had someone to consult, some reliable sounding board… and Brother Patrick was hardly a Dutch uncle, but his electricity had already guided her this far in her transformation. As weird as the thought appeared in so many words, he was the being she trusted most in the world.
After her second fruitless visit, on Thursday morning between classes, she noticed one of the elder librarians (the quintessence of the “school marm” type she never wanted to be) looking especially hopeless over a pile of postal cartons. An inspiration struck her, and she obeyed it. She would volunteer to help with the final arrangements on Friday afternoon. Kent would not like letting her have another evening off so soon—especially a Friday night—but, if necessary, she would toss out a “Fire me if you want.” (Not likely: “Virgin Mary” brought in too many customers, like pilgrims hoping to wring a miraculous smile from a statue.) The work here would be sure to keep her late, as well as giving her a perfect excuse to putter around all the stacks. If she hadn’t found him by the time everyone was being summoned to the exit, she would simply melt into the shelves again, as she had done before. That would almost be better: no one but the two of them in the whole place, and a quiet night’s sleep in a couple of soft chairs.
As had all her plans lately, this one ran like a well-oiled machine. Her boss had at first put his foot down firmly; but, as soon as she had sighed philosophically, “Well, then, I’m afraid I’ll just have to quit,” he almost fell on his knees (“Don’t get so upset… why didn’t you say it was important?... Cheryl is coming apart at the seams, and that cow Rhonda’s pregnant, but… take two days off, if you need them”). Abject surrender. She actually enjoyed it. At the Graduate Library, pizza was provided in the break room for staff and volunteers (two of whom, surprised at her generosity, asked her if she was Jewish). She managed to draw assignments which sent her far and wide through the stacks: no corner was left unprobed. To that extent, at least, she was able to execute her design to the letter.
But Brother Patrick was not cooperating. She casually raised the subject of the self-willed air-conditioning once in the break room, but only one girl rose to the bait (the petite employee, in fact, who had unconsciously trespassed upon her first encounter with the ghost)—and the response was not encouraging: “I’ve noticed that too, off and on—Rena and Chad and I were talking about it just last week. But I’ve been down here most of this week. Maybe they got it fixed for the conference… did you say it was acting up again?”
So the final phase of the plan had to be initiated shortly after the few patrons were hazed out the exit. Lisa announced quite audibly to the school marm, “I’m going to head out after I powder my nose,” so as to cover her tracks if any of her colleagues-for-a-night should ask after her. She took care to escape everyone’s detection when slipping out of the ladies’ room (a token visit timed just long enough to let two figures with arms loaded vanish down the corridor). She managed to open and shut the fire escape’s self-locking door with scarcely a click, and proceeded to make her way up six flights of stairs. Not only would the sixth stack be least frequented, but… well, she had an intuition (she was starting to convince herself these days of her extraordinary intuitive powers) that he would have retreated to that far remove, as well.
Jamie Bond. No female version of Double-O Seven could have slithered more adroitly into hiding, until—within fifteen minutes—the lights dimmed dramatically. For an instant, Lisa wondered what on earth she had done. It was enough to have pulled off this trick once before, in flight from Jeremy: that was serious business. But to come back for more, just for the pleasure of seeing him… the experience was, after all, pretty spooky. Extremely spooky. And what could he possibly tell her? What did she intend to ask him… if the ghost two doors down from Frantisek’s childhood home, perhaps, could vouch for the young Fran’s character?
She found herself nervously walking around and around the sixth floor, always taking the same aisles. Every dozen steps or so, she would shiver and pause… but they must have been shivers of expectation (or dread, or dreadful expectation), because they didn’t grow ominously or appear to emanate from any direction. After a short spell of such fitful stopping and starting, she also found herself speaking… talking to herself in mutters, then raising her voice and addressing herself to him.
“I don’t know why… why you’re avoiding me. We had… I thought we had something special. You… you must not understand how much you mean to me. You have to understand… something about me. Maybe you already do… or maybe I just happened to be around when you decided to come out of hiding. But… well… we’ve got all night together, so… so let me tell you something about myself you probably don’t know. I’m a lot like you… I’m sure I must be a lot like… like you were. Nobody ever made much over me. I was kind of a wall flower in grade school, and in high school. Not popular… a bookworm. I read a lot just… just to create a space for myself, you know. I read more than my classmates, anyway. I’m sure I didn’t read like you did. But… it was like the whole world just ignored me. There was my mom and Aunt Lise, but… but the girl they saw when they looked at me was this great scholar, this high-power, successful professional… you know? I was going to—to be Mom’s life, like. The life that she never had. Vicariously, as they say. Well, I… thanks a lot for that high opinion of my future, Mom, but… but what about me? Who am I? I… oh, God, for some reason I thought you could help me figure that out! I thought that’s what you were doing. I thought maybe you had been through the same kind of stuff, with people… people pushing you aside and walking over you—when you were alive, I mean—and that that… that was what drove you deep inside, maybe. To climb above them all with your brain since you couldn’t do it with your body. I… that’s really me, too! And now I’ve just about done it! I mean, I think I can do it! But… oh God, I so wanted you to come out and tell me I was doing good!”
Lisa shouted these final words into as many books as she could confront in one sweeping motion, standing still, her fingers releasing her tremulous elbows and reaching for thin air.
“Be here for me, will you?”
She would never recover a very clear recollection of the next few hours. She must have been asleep for many of them, until a huge thud nudged through her unconsciousness like an iceberg fatally shouldering the hull of a ship. Could she actually remember the detonation, or was the supposed memory owed to what she later learned? Certainly there was nothing informative in what immediately followed. With a start, she opened her eyes upon… oblivion. Chaos, pitch black and deathly silent. She probably could not recall where she was for several seconds that seemed like minutes. There were no visual clues—not until her eyes adjusted enough to their inky surroundings to discern fairer shades of black softly tending toward the rectangular where the library’s windows should be. Even then—even when she must have begun to reconstruct the story of this ill-conceived adventure—there was nothing to be done at once. To grope about among the shadows of towering book cases would not have led her to light: she was as well off closing her eyes again upon a black void as upon a faintly lit storehouse of bound paper, since her plan all along had been to sleep through the night.
Then the smoke alarm screamed, and screamed again, and in two seconds had established an invariable pattern of murder-at-midnight screams. She must have tumbled out of her drawn-up chairs, either in shock or in a reflexive effort to progress toward an exit; for when she in fact began to smell the acrid, throat-tickling odor, she was already in motion on her hands and knees. For some reason, she was sure of that—perhaps because she had been thoughtlessly bound for the elevator’s vicinity before then, not yet awake enough to account for the power outage, but at that point realized the urgency of getting to the sealed-off fire escape. The terror of suffocation, and the obvious evidence that she had already entered the first stages of being unable to breathe, chased the cobwebs from her mind and made her break out in a cold sweat.
Fortunately, the air was not yet so thickly clouded—and her progress not yet so disastrously far—that she could not look back and distinguish the windows’ gray reference points. She was able to use them and her memory of the door through which she had sneaked the previous evening to reach the fire escape, eventually, feeling at her side (book spines, a metallic shelf, a stuccoed wall) until the exit’s smooth surface at last met her touch. These were her clearest memories, oddly enough, recalled with an alarm shrieking at her neck, her body in vigorous motion, her life on the line, and her head as yet relatively free of inhaled fumes.
She had apparently exited the stairwell on the ground floor and then been unable to find her way back to its comparative safety. A firefighter found her lying senseless under heavy wreathes of tar-like smoke in the foyer. Some doctor or attendant would tell her the next day (or that same day, with sunlight glinting through a hospital window) that she could probably not have been revived if the discovery had been delayed another five minutes.
As it was, her only other clear recollections from outside the hospital room were of the scrambling turmoil glimpsed over an oxygen mask. She must have been sitting up by that time on the edge of an ambulance, because she could see clearly a bright red fire truck and a steady silver stream of water pouring down the empty library parking lot. The day’s dawn was much farther along than her memories of the dim sixth-floor windows would have implied. Either fumes had already gathered before the explosion woke her up (which made no sense at all) or else the whole transit, from falling out of her chair to collapsing in the foyer, had consumed about an hour. Perhaps she was already trying to piece this puzzle together, still sucking from the mask, when a man in a dark uniform started blaring something at her, eventually grabbing her by the shoulders. At that point, medics extricated her from him and made her lie down—which she did gratefully, shutting her eyes at once.
But she noticed the same Navy-blue uniforms loitering about her door after groggily reviving to headache-white sheets and silver surfaces. She drifted in and out as sunlight migrated patiently across the far wall through a slit in the blinds. She could hear a lot of murmuring, less at her bedside than just beyond the door. More than once, she entertained the notion of a bad dream from which she could not quite seem to awaken.
Frantisek was there in the afternoon, as she became fully conscious. There was no more gear strapped to her head (though a tube was in her left wrist), and they let her drink some fruit juice and, later, go to the bathroom. (She was shocked at her pallor in the mirror… what would the Interdisciplinary Studies crew have said if they had known how much she longed for a lipstick?) Frantisek sat silently, placidly, as a nurse settled her back in and checked her over. Only when they were alone did he speak.
“Do you know what happened?”
“A fire. There was a fire… the alarm. I was in the library, and…”
“But what were you doing in the library, Lisa?”
There was little of the placid in his tone now, though Lisa had the feeling that he was fighting to conceal his anxiety. When she looked him in the eye, the image of the uniformed man shaking her flitted between them briefly. Then she turned toward the door, through whose small glass panel she could see a blue shoulder, and sank back onto her pillow.
“I… I was helping. Helping with the exhibit. There was supposed to have been…”
“Yes, yes. I know all that. But why did you not leave with the others?”
“Well, I….” She didn’t even think her response over: she shut her eyes, and it spilled out quite naturally. “I left something upstairs. I went back up to look for it, and then… then the lights went dim, and I thought, ‘Oh, no, I’m locked in. I’ll have to get to a phone.’ But then I thought, ‘Hey, what the heck! I’m already behind on my reading. This’ll be the perfect time to catch up, and no one will bug me.’ See, I didn’t even have my cell. I’d left my purse in the car. So I read a while, and then I… I guess I must have dozed off. The next thing I know, the smoke alarm is going off… no, wait a minute. No, there was some kind of big thud, and I opened my eyes, and everything was all black. And then the alarm went off.”
“Okay… okay.” His tone was already infinitely more mellow. “But why would you do such a foolish thing as to stay in the building alone? Are you not aware that such behavior constitutes trespass?”
She laughed easily, still not opening her eyes. The answers came smoother this way. “Students do it all the time! I’ve done it before myself. If they don’t want us to do it, why don’t they tell us not to? The really good schools have their libraries open all night…”
“Okay, okay. That will suffice.” His words were condescending, but his tone seemed more satisfied than ever.
He had her repeat her account immediately to two of the uniforms. (As they were ushered in, one of them was saying, “And you are her…”—to which Frantisek had muttered in reply, “Her legal counsel, yes.”) She had the feeling that the man who had shaken her was not among this pair, for they very politely registered everything she said. It occurred to her, even, that she might complain about that bit of police brutality… but it wouldn’t come out. Frantisek had always said that she was discreet.
When they were alone again, he nodded approvingly. “Your insurance should cover your bills, since there is no criminal liability. I told them from the beginning that it was completely innocent—a childish error on your part.” That word child again…. “In fact, the fire marshal has already determined that the bomb was ignited by a timing device. If it had been your work, you would not have remained on the premises, and so on, and so on.”
He swallowed this final hasty sentence in a sigh, and then raised his voice with a hand’s flourish toward the window. Strange, that she had never noticed how much his manner resembled an attorney’s. “The modus operandi is indeed very similar to that employed by saboteurs in Chicago last month who were betrayed just before their attack was to occur. The explosive is smuggled in by tiny amounts over a period of months, perhaps a year. Since the event has been announced well ahead of time, such a procedure is feasible. Then, at last, the detonating device is attached, which need be little more sophisticated than a wrist watch.” He laughed his silent laugh. “Probably the time for this explosion was to have been five o’clock this evening, the hour when closing ceremonies were to conclude and when all the visiting dignitaries would be sure to be assembled in one place. But the poor novice set it for five in the morning!”
Here Frantisek could not restrain an audible laugh, or even a lingering of that laugh into something uncharacteristically like a fit. His mirth exceeded now what she had heard as they lay in bed together, weighing the notion of her as James Bond.
“Forgive me,” he choked, “I am being quite tasteless. You almost lost your dear life in this… this fiasco. But it is so amusing to see how cleverly these people plan something out, and then how foolishly they frustrate themselves. They are, after all, little more than… what’s the word? Busboys! Busboys with a crash course in electronics.”
Frantisek laugh once more—the almost inaudible exhalation through his nose—then smoothed his suit and reseated himself next to her bed. He opened his mouth to speak again at least twice that she observed without arriving at the right first word. The incident’s amusing aspects were no longer under consideration.
“Unfortunately… even though your involvement in this affair is entirely innocent… it complicates our project tremendously. Oh, I can still get you the internship for the spring—of that I do not speak. But that, after all, was nothing. Or it was to be nothing, a mere stepping stone. Now, however… your involvement with a terrorist incident…”
“But there was no involvement!” Lisa protested, struggling to climb her pillow. “You said it yourself! I was a completely innocent bystander—I was almost killed!”
His heavy sigh, so very full of Old World resignation, did not bode well. “Alas, my dear, we are not talking now about criminal culpability. The circles for which I had imagined you to be destined are very sensitive to the least little whiff of… of souillure. They cannot run the risk. Caesar’s wife, and all that…”
“Caesar’s wife?” she rebelled openly—for she had not sat through two years of Interdisciplinary Studies for nothing. “We’re in the twenty-first century, and you’re giving me that old thing about Caesar’s wife?”
“Now, now,” he calmed commandingly, with another attorney’s lift of the hand. “The image is sexist, no doubt, but the… the issue is not gender-specific. It would be the same for a man. Attendance of a certain rally as a college freshman… being roommates, even, with a certain person who is later implicated in subversion… it is grossly unfair, of course. But when security is of the essence, one seeks assurances where and how one can.”
Lisa sank heavily back down the pillow. “So that’s it. That’s my… my chance. It’s gone.”
“Of course it isn’t gone! The most direct path has been encumbered, perhaps sealed off… but we will find other paths. Indeed, it strikes me that we could make this incident work for us. You will be thought by certain parties, no matter what the official story, to have been implicated in the affair… and this will actually dispose some of these parties well to you, even as it alienates others…”
Lisa tried to rotate her head from the pillow’s thick embrace, widening her eyes to bring Frantisek within her field of vision. “You want me to learn Arabic? You want me to…”
“Oh, Lisa! Of course not! You must never come near those who in fact hatched the plot, for they alone would certainly know you for an imposter. But… I believe you have studied French extensively?”
She was starting to tremble, and she felt that she would like to scream; but she contented herself with almost whispering, “How do you know so much about me, anyway?”
Perhaps he truly had not quite understood her words—or perhaps another long sigh was the only response he was at liberty to make. She heard his steel-framed chair creak, as well: a sigh and a recoil. Bad girl… she had been indiscreet!
“I shall try this evening, at any rate, to convince a certain member of the Israeli diplomatic corps that, far from being a conspirator, you were very nearly a victim here. His delegation is quite upset. Priceless documents were ruined, damaged irreparably. Not just by the fire, or even primarily, but far more by the smoke and, later, by the water innocently sprayed throughout the building by the firemen. One might as well include them in the conspiracy! Indeed, one wonders if these stupid busboys could have been so subtle as to realize the damage to history that smoke and water would do, for the charge was pitifully insufficient if the objective were to incinerate the whole building… fortunately for you, I might add thankfully.”
Something strange stirred in Lisa as the sliver of sunlight danced across a light switch. “So… so there was a lot of damage to the books?”
“The books? You mean…”
“I mean the books in the library. Not the documents on display, the books.”
“Oh….” She heard a rustle, and she could picture his shrug. Suddenly she was glad that she hadn’t given her notice at Hooters. “I believe I heard it mentioned… I believe the figure was seventy-five percent.”
“Seventy-five percent of what?”
“Of the books. The holdings. Damaged beyond use. Mostly smoke, of course.”
And now Lisa did tremble. She rose upon her pillow, and her breathing deepened until it labored. Three out of four books… and over forty years or so, he would already have read… what? At one hundred, two hundred books a year, over forty years, and now three out of four gone…
“Lisa, my dear! Are you… are you feeling quite all right? Just… just be still now, and let me fetch a doctor! Try to be still!”
She raised her wrist to her wide-open mouth, and thrust it in—to stifle a laugh, or maybe a wail. He was gone! He was free! He needed no more mourning… and she had no one to mourn for.